Conversation with Ian Hobson, Part 2

Questioner: Park, Jonghwa(Pianist, Professor at Seoul National University)

P. Before we move on to life in the States, we are aware of the fact that you are a fantastic conductor as well as a pianist. When did you first come in touch with the idea of learning?

H. Quite early actually. I said I was an organist at choirmaster even when I was a young boy in Coventry, I had a choir and played the organ. Occasionally we would have a few trumpeters and extra musicians to play with the choir so I did some Vaughan Williams pieces. When I was 15, I started doing these things. When I was at Cambridge, I conducted ensembles, just amateur things, pieces of Walton, or Bach Cantatas which I put together. But seriously I started conducting in my second year at Yale. I became a conducting joint major and really started to see how it was, to have an influence or not have an influence on an orchestra. It’s an extremely difficult endeavor. Conducting looks easy but it’s not easy. So I went through all of the trials and tribulations of learning my craft as a conductor but I’m glad that I did it at a relatively early age. When I had studies at Aspen and Tanglewood with great people, in the 80s I felt that this was beneficial and I had a good grounding in studies. Conducting is not so much just wielding stick and doing something. It is knowing what things sound like. As I said you need to know what a chord is going to sound like before you play it. In an orchestra, you need to know what you want something to sound like in the timbre of the instruments or the voices before it happens. Because you have to have the concept in your head. Otherwise you’re just waving your hands and it doesn’t mean anything. So it’s something very intangible. It’s not easy to say how you should do it how you should study how you should find your way. That’s why there are so few very good conductors in the world. But it is something that is worth pursuing and it’s a miraculous form of music making because there’s no question that a conductor’s personality, a conductors mind, a conductors influence can make a tremendous difference in the perception of the composition.

P. Keeping the subject with conducting. Also the greatest art of conductors are the ability to communicate without speaking. During the performance, during the rehearsal you cannot possibly explain everything what you are feeling, what you are thinking, what you are trying to accomplish. What is your secret in communicating with musicians?

H. I don’t know what the secret is. What I try to do is eye contact. With eye contact, not too obviously but to show people ‘Ok, now I would like you to be the most important person. Now I would like you to be just a little bit less important that this one through.’ I mean, that is what it’s all about. I remember I studied in Aspen, and Dennis Russell Davies who was my first conducting teacher. He said “Boulez does all his conducting so wonderful, things very clear. But he never looks at the musicians. He never has eye contact with the musicians.” It’s a strange concept. I mean, for me, eye contact is everything. And that’s the main reason to memorize your music as a conductor from my point of view. You can then put the score aside and you could look at the musicians. Because just a sign from the eye, just a sparkling in the eye to say, then they’ll play a little bit differently than they would’ve done before. That’s what the conductors for.

P. You were studying keyboard and conducting at the same time?

H. Yes, and harpsichord and organ. I studied harpsichord with Ralph Kirkpatrick at Yale who was a very famous harpsichordist and a student of Wanda Landowska, who was the editor of the complete Scarlatti works in his own edition. All five hundred and fifty five on the Scarlatti Sonatas were ordered and put in shape by Kirkpatrick. And I studied with him for a couple of years in Yale.

P. Could you tell us about Kirkpatrick’s character and his teaching style?

H. Well, his teaching style was very unorthodox indeed. In fact I didn’t understand anything about what he said. He would sit in his chair. He would say “Play me this Scarlatti Sonata” and I’d play it and he say “You didn’t play it from your diaphragm.” which is some organ somewhere in here. And I’d say that I’m sorry. So he didn’t really know what.. I didn’t know what he was talking about. But as a player he was quite captivating, very intellectually astute. I studied a Scarlatti course with him. There was also a Couperin course that he taught and he tested me for that but it was in French, so he determined that my French wasn’t good enough so I couldn’t go in this Couperin course. It was okay, but the Scarlatti course, I was in.

P. He was one these.

H. Eccentric

P. Eccentric from beginning of 20th century, musicians, there were lots of eccentrics. That’s why it was so interesting.

H. There was not only Ralph Kirkpatrick, there was John Kirkpatrick. John Kirkpatrick was at Yale at the same time, he was the Ives scholar. John Kirkpatrick thought himself as Ives reincarnated although he couldn’t have been because Ives was alive at the same time as him. But I did hear John Kirkpatrick play the Concord Sonata and it was fantastic. I’ve heard the Concord Sonata and I’ve studied it, but John Kirkpatrick had this kind of religious fervor. New England Christian fervor and when he played the Concord Sonata with all of these notes and then these hymn tunes coming in there. It was just it was like revelation, it was extraordinary. I’ve never heard of like that before or since.

P. So how long was your time at Yale school of music.

H. Just three years.

P. And how did it connect to your professional life?

H. Well, it was a really a wonderful thing for me because when I was in London, I was really on the verge of having a professional career. And when I went to Yale, I took a step back from that, which was very important for me. I went back and I studied counterpoint, I studied history of music, courses on Ives and Scarlatti and all that. And I was not pushed out into the public too soon and I consider that a very wonderful thing. So I did not have to study how to play in front of the public and how to show myself as a star performer until much later. After I went to Yale, I went to Illinois as a young professor in 1975 and then after that came all of the competition wins in piano and conducting.

P. On you resumé there’s also Menahem mentioned as one of your teachers. When did you come into contact with him?

H. At Yale I had two teachers. Ward Davenny who was a long time professor at Yale and he was extremely meticulous, very caring, and not so much in the limelight as a performer, but we had long long sessions of working on music. Also Claude Frank, he was a student of Artur Schnabel, he taught me many things and I loved his style of playing and his sound. He played all the Beethoven sonatas he was very much into the Schubert, Brahms, Mozart tradition of Schnabel. And then after I left Yale and I came to Illinois. I had the opportunity to contact Menahem Pressler, who was at that time the pianist in the Beaux Arts Trio, and he said “Yes, come and study with me, come and play for me.” He lived in Indiana which was three hours away from where I was. So I worked with him for four or five years and it was just the right time. Because he gave me the sense of musical polish and warmth that I needed to express myself better, at that time. And so thereafter I had some successes in international competitions ending up with the Leeds competition in 1981.

P. Like Claude Frank, Artur Schnabel, the previous generation of musicians, I also noticed that they did possess something else than we have. It was of course a different era. Could you talk about this to the next generation the younger generation who hasn’t had a connection? We had a connection, I mean, I am probably one of the last generation who has that connection who really kept the end of 19th century and being at 20th century spirit. Could you describe something for the younger generation so they can feel and know what it was like to have studied with these people and to interact with them?

H. We are always like the last generation, the last person who studied with so and so. And as a young person in the 1970 let’s say. In London, I was able to go to many performances of Artur Rubinstein, solo and when he played three concertos in one night which he did frequently. It was a little bit later that I heard Michelangeli, and I heard Horowitz twice in concert. These are legendary things to do, you talk to people who came of age three or four, five years later and they say ‘oh my god I wish I could have done that, I wish I could have heard that.’ And the people that I knew my manager, my friend in England they say “I heard Cocteau, I heard Rachmaninoff play this and that.” and you realize that these things happen in not so far in the past but things change quickly. I also heard some of the next generation people like Earl Wild, people like Shura Cherkassky, people like Louis Kentner. These are legendary performers and they only died fairly recently. Abbey Simon is still with us, he was a student of Josef Hofmann. These things go on, over a long time. What to say to the younger generation? It’s sad when you ask a student “Did you hear so and so play this, did you hear Rachmaninoff play this, did you hear Rubenstein play this?” and they’d say “No, I just been on YouTube and I heard so and so play it” then I’d say “Well, why don’t you go back and look and see if you can find something.” Because the traditions of music and piano playing especially, piano playing depends on imagination. You can’t just play the piano and punch in the numbers and say “Let’s do this and do that.” You have to use flights of fancy imagination in order to make piano sound like something fantastical or something magical.

P. I talked to many of older colleagues who’ve experienced these things, these concerts who’ve seen Richter, Horowitz, Rubenstein in concert in live. And most of them I would say 99 percent of them are not happy with what’s going on these days. The younger generation of musicians, for them it’s missing something or it’s not different in a way that doesn’t satisfy their desire. What do you think that is? Is there a generation gap in expectations and inclinations?

H. Yes, it’s very difficult to satisfy our older colleagues in terms of pianistic musical imaginational accomplishments. That’s understandable because some of these people that they listen to are absolute giants. They may be giants only in a limited repertory. But when you hear Rachmainoff play, or you hear Rubenstein play and you hear him play some Chopin or some piece of Rachmaninoff, it is with such authority and such truth behind it. It’s very difficult to deny that and for us in the modern era to try to do something like imitate that is usually folly. It’s better to forge a new path and that doesn’t always make itself known to people of the old generation as they are, and it’s not like the way it used to be. So this is just a fact of life.

P. Do you think it has to do with a span of time that has passed where these giants were closer to composers they are playing?

H. No, I don’t think that has much to do with it, really. Because every generation has a different take on things. I mean, if you hear Ignaz Friedman play Chopin Mazurkas, you would think ‘That’s the only way to play it. That would be the authentic way.’ and he was what in the 1920s. Then Rubenstein came along in the 1930s and 1940s in a much more literal way but also in a very authentic way. Now people would say “Ok, Rubenstein is more to our taste.” So it’s not that Friedman was closer to Chopin because Friedman was 80 years after Chopin anyway. The study of music and trying to get back to the past, trying to get back to an authentic way of playing something, is constantly going on, is constantly changing. So I don’t think it has anything to do with that.

P. Moving on to a lighter subject, did you ever meet these giants backstage or did you shake hands? Did you ever get to meet them face to face?

H. Oh, I met Shura Cherkassky several times and he was always wonderful, very interesting. I met Louis Kentner and I met some people who were on juries at competitions that I was an entrance in. For example Guido Agosti, who was a terrific pedagogue in Italy, also played very well but didn’t play much in public, but knew his stuff tremendously. So, yes I met some of these people. I didn’t meet Horowitz, but I was at Yale in the 70s and I did a transcription of his Stars and Stripes Forever which was a virtuoso piano piece based on Sousa. And I copied it down from the record, from the LP, I had to drop the needle on the LP many times. It took me two or three days. And I came up with this manuscript and the director of Yale, the dean said “That’s very nice. Can I send this to Mr. Horowits? Because we want to get him to come to Yale to teach.” and I said ok. So he sent my manuscript to Vladimir Horowits. And then a few weeks later, the dean said to me “He was very happy to receive it. He said I don’t have a copy of this music.” That was the last I ever heard of it. And my manuscript is in the Yale library of transcriptions which now appear in print all the time. The Carmen Fantasy, Hungarian Rhapsodies that he transcribed, this is really amazing stuff.

P. He(Horowitz) must have not been very happy about that because from the rumors he was very protective.

H. Of course.

P. Moving on to competition, what was the first competition that you attended and how was the whole scene like?

H. The first international, the really truly international competition one I did was in 1973, it was a Van Cliburn competition. I was just in the first round, I didn’t get through the first round but it was still a very interesting experience for me. Then in 1977, I went to the Van Cliburn competition again and this time I was a finalist, I won fifth prize. That was the beginning of what I would call my competition pyramid, I won fourth prize in the Leeds competition in 1978 and then I thought that I wasn’t going to do any more competitions, I thought that was fine for me, finished. But in 1979, I did what became the William Kapell competition in Maryland, and in 1980 I went to the Artur Rubinstein competition in Tel Aviv. There I won second prize. This was the second of three second prizes that I won. The following year I went to Beethoven competition in Vienna, won second prize in June and in September I went back to Leeds and won first prize. So I feel very fortunate that it went up this way and not down the other way. Which very often happens to people who’ve been to competitions many times but it is certainly a route to performance and opportunity, the competition route. It’s not for everybody but it is a nerve-racking but effective way of getting to do what you want and there are many more competitions now than they were in my day.

P. During the 60s and 70s, competitions were a great enterprise in a way that they produced a start.

H. Yes, it was very productive in that way. In the Leeds competition that I entered in 1981, there was a piano which was one of the prizes for the first prize winner, a Steinway Piano. Also a tour with the English Chamber Orchestra, a performance with Sir Georg Solti, London Philharmonic, et cetera. So it was, it’s not so clear-cut anymore. And there are so many proliferations of competitions that it’s not always sure that even if you win first prize, it’s not always sure that this will produce the results.

P. When you were doing as a participant back then and now when you are actually judging competitions, how has it changed? Did the essence change?

H. I’m not sure about that. The fact that there were fewer competitions in the 70s and the 80s than there are now means that the method of preparing for them was different. I think that people were not quite sure what to do. There was a sense that competitions were a little bit different than performances. In other words, you had to be more careful about your performance in a competition than you would be in a normal recital venue because of the way that the jury might perceive this. And that was something that I resisted, I didn’t like the idea that I would play to please a jury. I didn’t want to do that but I was still mindful of the fact that I couldn’t just go and do eccentric things and play too fast or too loud and this or that. So I was a little bit careful about certain aspects of it, and I think in the early stages of my competition career that was shown to be a bad thing to do. In other words I didn’t take enough risks, I wasn’t expressive enough, I wasn’t myself enough and so that I ended up with consolation prize or fourth or third prize. And when I decided that I was really going to go for the music and go for exactly what I wanted to do, and damn the consequences, then I started really coming to the top and that was a nice thing. I don’t know whether it was because I was just becoming more mature. My successes in competitions took place mainly in my late 20s when was 29 years old when I won in Leeds competitions.

P. Does this statement still ring true to the participants these days?

H. Yes, I think so. As a jury member, I don’t want to hear somebody being careful, cautious, hedging their bets. I want somebody to just go out there and make music and excite me and I feel that my colleagues on the juries also, the good ones, they’re delighted, they’re thrilled, we’re all thrilled when we hear somebody, ‘Wow, did you hear that? This is a magnificent performance.’ It’s nothing to do with competition performance. It’s a real performance. Whether it has mistakes or doesn’t have mistakes. But it’s something that’s really thrilling in and of itself.

P. But do those competitors win?

H. They do it, if I’m on the jury and people like me are on the jury. They don’t if people who are bean counters on the jury. But that’s always the way it’s been.