The last time I attended a performance by pianist Angela Hewitt, I had to wonder whether little radio receivers in her fingertips were tuned to a live transmission from Mount Olympus. OK, that's hyperbole. But she is something else.
Hewitt is about to give two recitals in the Bay Area. The first is Thursday at Le Petit Trianon in San Jose, an all-Beethoven program presented by San Jose State's Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies. (She will play early and midperiod works, as well as the late great Op. 110.)
The second is Sunday in San Francisco at the SFJazz Center, presented by San Francisco Performances. (She will play "The Art of Fugue" by J.S. Bach, for whom Hewitt has a special affinity.)
I recently caught up with Hewitt by phone, while she was on tour in South Korea. We talked about her upbringing in Ottawa, Canada, her father (a cathedral organist) and much more: adrenaline, memory, ice skating.
Q Do you regard Bach as your special realm?
A You can't get any greater music than Bach; it's really the best study of all. So he always will take a prominent place in my life. He always has, since the beginning when I heard my father play Bach.
Q What do you remember about the way he played it?
A I suppose those are some of my earliest memories, seeing him at the organ. I just remember the enthusiasm and energy and color and drama and sense of the architecture that my father brought to Bach's music. All those things -- I still carry them with me.
My father and mother -- they were both my teachers -- taught beautiful phrasing, beautiful tone, beautiful legato and detached playing. We were never allowed to bang; everything had to sing and to dance.
Q Has your Bach changed through the decades?
A Yes. For instance if you listen to my second recording of "Well-Tempered Clavier" and compare it to the first, you'll see a progression.
Q Of what?
A Of sound and color and imagination, and rhythmic stuff too. Basically, the approach is the same, but there's a progression. Some people might prefer the earlier ones. I don't.
Q Let's talk about your Beethoven -- you're cycling through his piano works for the Hyperion label. This San Jose recital features a pretty unusual mix of pieces.
A Those are the four sonatas that I just recorded for Vol. 5 of my cycle. So I'll have one or two pieces that people know well and maybe a couple they don't know so well. The program includes Op. 2, No. 2, which is only his second sonata, still very Haydn-inspired, and Op. 78, which was one of Beethoven's favorites, right through to Op. 110, near the end. So there's quite a range. Why not?
Q Were you born to live on the road? Do you ever think before a concert, "Oh no, I just can't face it"?
A Last year I gave something awful, like 130 concerts and master classes, with big rehearsal days. It's pretty much my life. Today is my second day (in a row) without a concert. It's good to have a break, but I do love the performing. I wouldn't put myself through such a grueling life, which it is, if I didn't enjoy it, that's for sure. I'm not going to do a Glenn Gould and just sit at home and record.
Q Have you ever experienced stage fright?
A We never mentioned the word at home: "nervous." We just made sure we were damn well prepared. Of course some people are temperamentally disposed to nervousness. But for anyone, the adrenaline always gets going; it's just how you manage to cope with it. The worst thing you can do is walk out there saying, "I'm going to make a mistake."
So whenever I prepare a new piece, I rehearse it at home for people; just get somebody to sit on the sofa and listen. That's very important, to rehearse before. And as soon as you give one performance, then it's easier -- much, much easier. It's in your reflexes.
Q Lay people like me are flabbergasted by the ability of recitalists to perform massive pieces from memory. A few years ago, you toured with all 48 of Bach's Preludes and Fugues, playing them all from memory. This is your norm, but it's not normal for most people. How do you do it?
A As young people, we memorize so quickly, which is great. But it's a less conscious memory. It becomes reflex memory, and reflex memory is the least reliable. ... When you're older, you can't rely on that automatic memory so much; you have to back it up with something.
There are many tricks. Know it backward. Memorize your fingering. Memorize it away from the piano. ... You learn to identify all those points where you can easily go wrong. And you memorize your harmonies. So you have to use a lot of different types of memory. But what's most helpful is to memorize away from the piano; sitting in a plane or a train or wherever. That sticks better than just sitting at the piano.
And as you get older, it takes longer. I have to do it a bit more consciously. It's a muscle. It needs working. And what I fear is that so many people -- with the Internet and everything on the computer, they don't use memory the way they used to. And that's bad, because a good memory serves you in so many ways in life, not just in music.
But I'm also philosophical about it. If something happens, if I make a mistake, of course (I) feel awful, but it's not the end of the world. It's like a figure skater falling on her bum. You get up, and you go on.
Q Did you ever consider doing anything besides being a pianist? Was it a choice, or was it inevitable?
A I enjoyed doing a lot of things as a kid, which was a good thing. Because I would hate to look back and see that I'd never done anything but play the piano. No, I played the violin. I played the recorder very seriously. I did classical ballet until I was 23 years old. I sang. I played football and baseball out in the front yard. Swimming. Skating. I had a happy childhood, but piano was always what I did best. It was the easiest. I knew that I did piano better, and I know that I made the right choice.
Performing piano recitals in San Jose and San Francisco
What/when: All-Beethoven program, 7:30 p.m. March 6
Where: Le Petit Trianon,
72 N. Fifth St., San Jose
Tickets: $25-$100; 408-808-2058 or at the door
program, 7 p.m. Sunday
Where: SFJazz Center, 201 Franklin St., San Francisco.