Monday, May 21, 2012

"Just ask" and you might get to hang out with Marc-Andre Hamelin at Carnegie Hall

Last week, I made my first trip to Carnegie Hall in New York City.  I didn't get there through "practice, practice, practice," like the saying goes though.  Last year, I was delighted to discover Carnegie Hall's new Spring for Music festival, in which North American orchestras submit concert program ideas and 6 are chosen basically on how cool their idea is.  They then are invited to perform that program in Carnegie Hall, one orchestra per night for an entire week.  Finally, interesting, engaging, exciting, and exploratory orchestra concerts! (Take a look at the awesome programs from last year and this year.)  And best of all, they are all broadcasted live on NPR as well as archived for anyone to access for free after that!

But when they uncovered the programs for this year, I was even more excited, because the New Jersey Symphony was planning to perform the Busoni Piano Concerto with none other than Marc-Andre Hamelin; one of my absolute favorite concertos (and rarely performed) by my absolute favorite pianist!

I discovered Hamelin, a Canadian pianist, around my sophomore year of college when I began exploring more off-the-beaten-path piano repertoire, thanks to the amazing resources of a university as well as growing tired of the standard repertoire which I heard every week in piano studio classes by all the performance majors.  I started noticing that a bunch of the piano works I was discovering (Rzewski's "The People United Will Never Be Defeated", Busoni's Piano Concerto, Bolcom's 12 New Etudes and Piano Concerto, etc.) had been recorded by this same pianist, Marc-Andre Hamelin.  Then, I started learning about new pieces through exploring his discography, discovering Alkan, Kapustin, Godowsky, Medtner, and Sorabji among others.  Hamelin has the talent to perform almost anything, but not only does he have an unbelievable technique, he does not waste a moment moving his body or arms around trying to show that he is "feeling" the music.  Instead, he is totally committed to creating music and sharing these musical masterpieces as opposed to feeding his ego.  Even more, he is an occasional yet fantastic composer for the piano and recently released a recording of his own compositions, which my friend Rory actually was able to get Hamelin to sign for me when he heard him at a recital in Akron last year.
'For Keane - Marc-Andre Hamelin'
But I had never actually seen or heard him live.  I knew I'd be in Massachusetts the week of Spring for Music this year, and I was tempted to somehow get down to NYC for the concert.  Tickets were $25 for any seat, not too expensive and surely a price I'd pay if he was playing close by.  But how to make a trip to NYC affordable?  Staying overnight would make it too expensive unless I could find a friend to stay with, and driving to and parking in Manhattan is something I wouldn't even dream of considering.  I started looking at buses, and you know those buses that advertise $1 tickets?  Well, I actually found one from NYC to Boston, but it was for a trip that would leave at 12:30am and arrive in Boston at 4:45am.  Not fun, but this actually worked out perfectly for me because I could just hop on the bus after the concert and not have to stay the night in the city.  I paired that with a $7 bus from Boston in the morning (plus a 50 cent booking fee) so I could spend most of the day exploring the city.  I got to and from Boston via the commuter rail from just a town over from where I live, costing about $15 round trip.  So in total, I spent a day in New York, went to a concert at Carnegie Hall, and returned home, all in about 24 hours and cost me around $50 total (thanks to packing my own food).  Not too shabby.

Anyways, on to the actual concert (which you can hear here)!  I actually had a pretty poor seat (most seats were taken by the time I bought mine even though it was more than a month in advance) sitting in about the 2nd row on the floor at extreme stage right.  During the concerto, I was essentially watching Hamelin's back and could see his hands on the keys except when they were hidden by his body.  I couldn't hear the piano as clearly as I wished because of my seat, but I knew the piece so well that my mind basically filled in everything my ears couldn't hear.  The fact that Hamelin played the entire 75 minute 'monster' concerto from memory was impressive enough, but it was a joy to see and hear it live.  

I'd known before going that there was going to be a post-concert reception/party at the Russian Tea Room and that Hamelin would be there, even playing some more piano, but of course it was far too expensive for me to even consider attending.  When I entered Carnegie Hall, I started talking with an old woman who said, "I'm always glad to see young people at concerts like these." "Oh, I wouldn't miss this," I replied.  "This is one of my favorite pieces and my favorite pianist." "Well, you should try to see if you can meet him backstage afterwards." On my behalf, she asked one of the ushers if that would be possible and the usher said to go to the stage door afterwards and ask if I could go backstage.  When the concert was over, that is exactly what I did, only to be told that I had to be "on the list," which of course I wasn't.  I would have to talk to the stage manager if I wasn't on the list, which I then did, pleading that I was a young composer and pianist and he was my favorite musician, but to no avail.  I couldn't get backstage but told me I could wait outside if I wanted to.  I spent about 20 minutes waiting by the stage door while all the members of the New Jersey Symphony passed by me, but no Hamelin.  I finally decided that, because I knew he was going to the Russian Tea Room afterwards, which is just next to Carnegie Hall, I should go hang outside there instead to try and catch him before he entered. 

I wandered over there, half thinking that he'd probably made his way inside to the reception already.  Outside the Tea Room was a young lady, probably just a few years older than myself, who was a kind of bouncer making sure only people on "the list" had entered.  I didn't want to be waiting there forever if Hamelin was already inside, so I went up to her and said "Excuse me, is this where the reception is for after the concert?" and she said "Oh, are you part of the [some group]?"  "No, I definitely am not, but could you tell me if Marc-Andre Hamelin is in there yet?"  "Oh, we've been expecting him, but he isn't here yet and he should arrive at any moment."  I then went on to explain how I was at the concert, was his biggest fan, came down from Boston on a bus that day just to go to the concert, and that I was dying to meet him.  At this point, at least I would be able to meet him briefly just before he entered!  Then the woman said something that really surprised me, "If you'd like, I'd be able to let you in to the reception.  There are a bunch of people on the list that haven't showed up and they won't be counting heads or anything up there."

I remember seeing a video of "The Last Lecture" by Randy Pausch and at some point he tells a story of being at Disney World on a ride and someone, I believe it was one of his kids, that asked him whether he could sit up with the driver.  His wife's immediate reaction was "Of course you can't" but Randy said, "Why don't you ask the driver?" After simply asking, the boy was allowed to ride up with the driver and loved having the privilege.  This is what I was thinking at that moment.  It's amazing what people will let you do if you just ask.

Hamelin arrived and the lady with the list introduced me as one of his fans.  I was pretty starstruck, talking about how I took the bus up that morning.  The next thing I know I'm riding in the elevator with him, his wife, and several other people up to the reception.  The elevator opens and there I go out into a sea of suits, tuxes, and wine glasses, while I am in sneakers that are falling apart, blue jeans, a hoodie, and a bulbous backback.  I couldn't help but just smile and laugh at the whole thing, me hobnobbing it with the bigwigs of the New York classical music world.  I felt so wonderfully out of place.  Hamelin sat down at the piano and played Ravel's "Ondine" as I just looked up around the glittering and sparkling room smiling in disbelief.  I didn't want to hang around him too much and keep him from the many other people that wanted to talk with him, but I did get to speak to him for probably a total of 5 minutes and of course got a picture with him:
Myself with Marc-Andre Hamelin
I thanked him for all the amazing pieces he has introduced me to through his recordings and he assured me that there will be more in the future.  He also let me know that he is planning to do another interview with Ethan Iverson of The Bad Plus.  I also told him about my piano works and he said I could send him some scores.  After an hour of wandering around, following and talking with Hamelin, and just listening in on conversations, Hamelin left and I did as well, but not before thanking the young woman with the list several times before I went.  Certainly a night I won't forget.

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