Conversation with Ian Hobson, Part 3

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

P. Can we move on to your artistic career after the competitions? You started to play lots of concerts and started off your professional career, could you tell us about the transitions and how your life changed?

H. I was teaching at the University of Illinois in 1981, I won the Leeds competition in September of 1981. I took a semester spring of 1982 off so that I could go around the world and do concerts and I did concerts from New Zealand to Amsterdam to Germany, I was playing all over the place. But I always knew that I wanted to continue in an academic post, I wasn’t just going to be a touring virtuoso of all my life. So that’s what I did. It may be that inhibited my career in the traditional sense. I wasn’t constantly on the tour, on the minds of orchestra committees who were searching for new soloists every year. But I don’t regret that because I was interested in so many other things. I was interested in teaching, in conducting and I was interested in founding my orchestra, which I did in 1984, chamber orchestra, from which I could not only conduct from the podium but also do many performances from the keyboard, conducting from the keyboard. Mozart concertos, Ravel, Saint-Saëns and other things that not many people do, so this was something I was particularly interested in doing.

P. Those years with activity, what was most pleasurable about being a pianist and what was most difficult in being a pianist?

H. I think that people don’t take young pianists that seriously. They think of them as trophies, you play at a competition and you win at a competition, then you go to the next music club or you go to the next music society and you are presented as the winner of the competition, then you’re discarded by the public to some extent in favor of the next one who is coming along. And so I didn’t enjoy that aspect of it, being a kind of prize of the system. I wanted to do my own thing. But when you participate in the system, you have to partake of the system too. You cannot pick and choose. So I’m very grateful to the accolades given to me by winning these competitions and it helped me a lot, it helped me to learn to be tougher, to be resilient in my learning of my performances. It helped me to go on to other things in music which interested me more. Perhaps chamber music or recording of music with other people, choral music, instrumental music with piano, etc. So I considered it all positive in the end.

P. Can I ask another question about performance life like in playing pianos. When you prepare for a performance, you need to program, you need to prepare for it, and then you go on the stage, you interact with audience and maybe you have a dinner with the organizer afterwards. There’s a process. Could you tell us about how you prepare for the concerts and also what happens after the concerts usually and how you feel?

H. I know that some people, some performing pianists and artists dread the social interactions. They don’t like that they have to go and have dinner with so and so, they are somewhat reclusive, don’t like to do this. I’m not like that, I enjoy it very much, I enjoy very much the social interaction with the sponsors with the people who put on the concerts, I enjoy that very much. In terms of preparation for the concert what I usually do if I have a concert in the afternoon, I will practice early in the morning then take a nap, then do the concerts and then after the concert I am happy to socialize and interact with people. If I have an evening concert, what I like to do is practicing in the morning, then have a good lunch, then take a nap, and then I’m fresh for the evening. Everybody has a different routine for this ritual of concert performance. And of course it depends on the repertoire. If you’re playing a concerto that you’ve never played before, it’s really nerve racking and it can be quite difficult to prepare for it.

P. Do you prefer playing solo recital or a concerto?

H. I don’t mind. I do both kinds. Most often, I’m playing a concerto with my orchestra when I’m conducting from the keyboard or I’m doing a solo recital. But I don’t have a preference for one or the other.

P. Out of many concerts that you had, what was the most memorable concert?

H. I would have to say that the concert with Sir Georg Solti was a very special one for me. In London, it was shortly after the Leeds competition and I was doing a tour with the English Chamber Orchestra with Mozart 595, the last piano concerto. Every night in a different town in the British Isles, and on the night off, I had to come down to London and play Beethoven Second with Sir Georg Solti, it was a very intense time. Sir Georg Solti was conducting on this program. I was doing Beethoven Second which as you know is his most light hearted, his first Piano Concerto excursion. On this program, Sir Georg Solti was conducting Leonore No. 3, ‘La Mer’ of Debussy, Elliott Carter’s Concerto for Orchestra. I had this little Beethoven Second Concerto in the middle of all of these. He was a tremendously energetic conductor. He was legendary for this. There was an electricity that came out of him. When we did this Beethoven, it was so exciting and riveting, you know the way that he would do it. And we had some issues about the end of the cadenza where he was wondering what I was going to do, there’s a scale that goes up and up and it’s not easy to count, and he had to come on time and so we had some issues back and forth about that but otherwise it was a wonderful experience.

P. Was Solti a very commanding person?

H. Yes.

P. So he had a precise idea of how music had to go?

H. Yes, to some extent, yes. But we didn’t have any arguments about that. But he said to me “I would have died if I had to play that piece in this program.” You know because it was such a powerful program that he was conducting all these great explosive masterpieces and I was playing Beethoven’s, little piano concerto but it was a lovely experience.

P. That shows he had compassion

H. Oh yeah. He was a very, very humane person.

P. I would like to ask you about other subjects, recording. You’ve done loads of recording and when you do recordings it’s not just like one CD, you seem to do a whole repertoire of a composer, you do series, you do projects. How did you come about doing these recordings and what motivated you to go about these huge projects of conquering each composer?

H. My first recordings were really after the Leeds competition. I did Mozart two concertos, the A major and the C minor with the English Chamber Orchestra and I did the Chopin 24 Etudes. And then as a third project that they offered to me, this is EMI, I did the Rachmaninoff transcriptions which I had long played. After that, then I was approached by other people, particularly Arabesque Records in America. They said to me, “You play all these transcriptions. I want you to do Godowsky Chopin Etudes, recording those.” And I said “How about if I do one of those and I do Rosenthal, and I do this and that?” and they said “No, I want you to do the Godowsky Chopin Etudes.” So I said ok. Then I went away and got the music of the stuff and I studied the ones that I really liked which amounted to 18 and I practiced them a long long time and then I recorded them. So that got me on that track. After that, they asked me to do the Hummel Sonatas, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, who was a great contemporary of Beethoven. I got to know those pieces and played and recorded them. And that led me to an ambition that I had which was to play the Beethoven’s 32 Sonatas, and I did that in 1987. In the early 90s I got the opportunity to record those. After that I started going into other composers that I really wanted to explore, such as Chopin, such as Schumann and Brahms. Ravel’s music I had played, Debussy’s I had not. But this year I am going to be playing the complete works of Ravel and Debussy for solo piano, which amounts to six recitals and so you know it’s not that I set out to take over all the repertoire of the world, but one thing leads to another and I get interested in things and then I record them and then I perform them in public.

P. From exploring all these different repertoires, and I’m sure you explore more repertoires to come, but up to now what remains the most dear to you, a composer or a piece in particular?

H. There’s certain pieces of Chopin that I love from years ago, when I was 15 I loved to play the Scherzo No. 4 or one of the Ballades. But in studying all of the music, I’d become familiar with pieces that have become my favorite since then. Things like Barcarolle of Chopin or Polonaise-Fantasie, which is not played so often but is a very beautiful piece and a kind of mystical piece in a way. When you look at the repertoire of Chopin, it’s mostly familiar but with Schuman, it’s not so familiar. I mean there are certain pieces that we know, the early pieces, but from the later pieces some magnificent discoveries to be made, like the Romances, Opus 28 of which we only know the second one which is so beautiful, but No. 1 and 3 are wonderful too. And there are pieces like Waldszenen which are so imaginative and products of his genius in later life. There are all sorts of discoveries. We never end with discoveries in piano repertoire because there are so much more than any other instrument, so much more music.

P. This question is probably very interesting to the listeners. How is a recording different from live, when you play? Do you prepare them in different way or how do you need to be prepared mentally, physically? How is recording different from live?

H. That’s a good question. When I was first recording in the 80s, I was doing things as a live performance. For short pieces, I would try to get them in complete takes. And I would do endless complete takes in case I got it exactly right. But in later years, I know what the complete take is, I know what the timing is. ‘Let me just concentrate on this page, let me concentrate on these four bars and get it the way I want it to and put it together with the engineer’ and that worked out very well. I think that I’m better at that now, better in choosing the way to approach something rather than going at it like a chicken at the fence, trying to get something right in every detail, no matter what it takes. And it’s not a satisfying result in the end that way.

P. This ability and knowledge comes with experience.

H. Experience, yes.

P. What would you tell to the younger pianist who is recording for the first time in his or her life? What would your counsel be, wise advice be?

H. Be prepared, like boy scout’s motto. You’ll have to try to approach the music in as calmer way as possible and be able to play it in different fashions. Not just one way, different tempos, be flexible in the way that you approach the music and just remember that you only have to get it right once. You don’t have to worry if it doesn’t work out the first take.

P. Moving on to the last subject. We would like to ask you about your life as a pedagogue. Do you like teaching?

H. Oh, yes. I like teaching.

P. I started to teach about ten years ago and prior to that I was exclusively a performer. When I started to teach, it was completely different experience but with that came enormous responsibility and also huge stress. It’s a very difficult because when you practice just for yourself, you know your limits you know what you can do, you know yourself so you know what to do, but when you deal with students you simply don’t know about how they’re listening to the sound, how they’re perceiving their brains. There are so many unknown uncertainties and the deal was there for me which was complete catastrophe. How was your first teaching experience?

H. My first teaching was at Yale as a graduate assistant, so I had certain students that I would teach and they were very good. They were not piano majors but they were playing difficult pieces. I remember the Brahms and Handel Variations which I hadn’t come across before. As a teacher and things like this, it’s a matter of dealing with individuals. It’s not a formulaic way of teaching this piece. If I teach Ballade number one of Chopin, I’m always going to teach it the same way? No, I don’t do that. I see what the student brings to it and then see what the student needs in terms of my advice or help and thereby I learn a lot of things about the piece, I learn a lot of things about teaching. It’s an interactive process. I was only 19 or 20 when I started to do this teaching and then I started teaching at Illinois and I was also very young. And I‘ve been doing it for a very long time. And sometimes, in the early days particularly I felt, I don’t know what to say about this. I mean it’s either so bad or it’s so good rarely, that I don’t know what to say about it. But you have to find ways of saying something. You have to find ways of starting a discussion and now I’m never lost for words. If somebody plays, no matter how well or how badly they play, I always know something to say to guide them to, something a little bit different.

P. If you were born again, would you still be a pianist?

H. I have no idea.

P. Do you have any regrets?

H. No, none at all. The piano is something that is multi-faceted. You can make the piano sound like an orchestra, you can make the piano sound like voice. We’re always asking our students. Make this sound like a violin or make this sound like an oboe, something like that. And I speak to my oboe colleagues and my violin colleagues and I say “Do you ever ask them to make your instruments sound like a piano?” and they say “Never. Never.” So we have something which is a very functional instrument and can do anything, but it’s very difficult to play. It’s the most difficult instrument to play well. And these other instruments, they’re very difficult to make a sound on, to start with, or a sound that’s acceptable to people’s ears. Piano, it’s easy, but to play well and to play with balance and to play with real meaning is extremely difficult.

P. Just to sum it up, if you have a message to the next generation of pianists, young students who are just starting off or young pianists who are just going into, making decisions to take this as a professional career, if you have a message to pass on, what is it?

H. First of all, a cynical message which is what I’ve had for many years. It’s not like it’s a new thing. If you want to study piano, study piano. If you are in doubt about whether you want to study music or you want to study medicine or you want to study English literature or you want to study geography, study something else than music. Because it requires such dedication. You cannot go into it half-heartedly. You cannot go into it thinking “I want to get my degree in three years and then I want to make money.” Because it doesn’t work that way in music. It is something that demands dedication, it demands love and passion about the profession, about the music, about the dedication to teaching and I’m happy to say that so many of my students have that passion and are doing extremely well. You may not be just teaching in one place, you may have to be a peripatetic teacher, you may have to teaching many different places or you may have to do some performing, some chamber music, some accompany, some teaching of historic music or something like that, pedagogy in order to make a living, but that’s great. It’s what we’re studying for and what we believe in. So it’s not necessarily a lucrative profession where you can guarantee that you’ll have a wonderful career and a wonderful security in your job, but you have the love of your passion for what you’re doing and that is the most important thing.