Savoring Ravel: Nicolas Hodges Premieres with NY Phil Feb. 18-20

Classic Arts Features   Savoring Ravel: Nicolas Hodges Premieres with NY Phil Feb. 18-20
Nicolas Hodges : the busy British pianist and teacher : is making his New York Philharmonic debut this month (Feb. 18-20). Fred Plotkin introduces readers to his tastes in music, collaboration and travel.


Today, when preparing to interview a musician, one doesn't only turn to their recordings and official biography; one can also get a sense of an artist by looking at his or her Facebook fan page. Here is a sampling from that of Nicolas Hodges, the outstanding British pianist who is making his first New York Philharmonic appearances, February 18 _20:

Oct. 4: Nicolas Hodges is about to leave St. Louis after two successful performances of Prokofiev 2.

Oct. 19: Nicolas Hodges premiered Rolf Riehm's concerto with the SWR SO Freiburg/Baden-Baden yesterday. Today's practice menu includes lots of Schumann, and one each of Ravel, Carter, Birtwistle, and Halffter.

Oct. 21: Nicolas Hodges is preparing for a recital in Parma on Friday: Schumann Arabeske op.18, Birtwistle 'Harrison's Clocks,' Carter 'Two thoughts about the piano,' and Schumann Fantasy op.17.

Dec. 3: Nicolas Hodges just left the stage of the Mozarteum, Salzburg, after an extremely enjoyable performance of Brahms F-minor Sonata with J‹rg Widmann.

The rigors of touring, rehearsing, learning new music, and family life (Mr. Hodges's wife, Kristen, is a working soprano, and they have two small children) can be demanding even for a man who is only turning 40 this year. "It is often very hard," he admits. "One is usually tired, but the need for food forces me to get out of the hotel if I do not want to 'do' room service. If I find a restaurant or a dish that I enjoy, I like to go back on each visit : there is a place in New York where I have a crêpe with duck, garlic, and plums. Food provides you with a home away from home. You know the dish, so it is a grounding."

Mr. Hodges continues: "It is the same with music. Pieces one has lived with since childhood produce special feelings because they are part of your past." The music from his youth that he cites are preludes and _tudes by Debussy, and he often warms up with them as well as with Chopin: "I feel a particular closeness with French music." In fact, he is performing a French work for his Philharmonic debut: Maurice Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand (1929 _30).

The piece : written at the request of Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm in World War I and commissioned works by a number of composers : was suggested by conductor David Robertson, who is leading this month's performances, and with whom Mr. Hodges has collaborated at the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Philharmonic. The pianist quickly embraced the proposal: "This concerto is a part of Ravel that says a lot to me _ it represents the darkness of his imagination. It is more direct and simpler than his bigger pieces such as Daphnis and Chloë. It has a huge impact, but not a direct one. Because you only use the left hand, the piece is more lightly orchestrated, but Ravel does much more with one hand than Scriabin, Saint-SaêŠns, or Hindemith did."

As suggested in his Facebook postings, Nicolas Hodges's repertoire covers a vast range of music, but with a particular emphasis on contemporary composers. Peter Ablinger, Thomas Ads, Harrison Birtwistle, Elliott Carter, and Salvatore Sciarrino are but a few of the living composers who have written music for him. Callum McDonald, in Tempo magazine, observed: "Hodges is a refreshing artist: he plays the classics as if they were written yesterday, and what was written yesterday as if it were already a classic."

Mr. Hodges : who was born in London in 1970 and has performed with orchestras from Chicago to Tokyo : spends part of his time teaching students at the Hochschule f‹r Musik in Stuttgart, Germany, his home base. His approach to teaching is the same as the one he uses to learn and perform: "The only thing one has the right to think about is to find the character that is already in the music and to best present it. Even though I might have a particular passion for a composer such as Beethoven or Debussy, when students discover composers they have an affinity for, I want them to capitalize on that. Great music : I'm all for it and will teach it." He observes: "People say that contemporary music is so hard. Well, ditto Mozart. All music worth playing is especially hard."

About Mr. Robertson, Mr. Hodges says, "We seem to share ideas about how music is performed. When you feel close enough, very little has to be said. Sometimes the only thing that has to be discussed is where to go eat dinner."


Nicolas Hodges performs with the New York Philharmonic Feb. 18-20. The program includes George Benjamin's Dance Figures, Debussy's Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun, Ravel's Concerto for the Left Hand and Ginastera's Dances from the Ballet Estancia, op. 8a.

Click here for tickets and info.

Fred Plotkin is the author of Classical Music 101 and Opera 101, both published by Hyperion.

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