Spend an hour chatting with the brilliant musician Nicolas Namoradze, and it’s abundantly clear this is not your typical pianist.
“Life is full of surprises,” Nicolas Namoradze a.k.a. “Nico” says of his impressive win of the top prize at the 2018 Honens International Piano Competition. The triennial Calgary-based competition has helped launch international performance and recording careers for a galaxy of classical music stars.
After taking the bold move of stepping out of the limelight for four years before entering the competition, the then 26-year-old pianist dazzled with virtuosic technique, matched by unconventional repertoire. His program included a lengthier choice of Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in B♭ major, Op. 83 for the finals, and his own Etudes he described as “fearsomely challenging”.
“You can get into trouble with things like that,” Namoradze states calmly of his program choices. “I made decisions that went against the grain because I knew that this wasn’t the kind of competition where I should be thinking about competition strategy. Brahms 2 was simply my favourite concerto, and I love playing it.”
Fortunately, his artistic risk paid off — literally — with the world’s largest cash prize for piano, a cool $100,000 (CAD) in addition to a comprehensive, three-year artistic and career development program valued at a half-million dollars. He recalls the life-changing moment when he realized he had won the top award, a musical Mount Everest only a rarefied few have reached.
“They announced the names of the other non-first prize-winning finalists first, so I knew I had won when I didn’t hear my name right away. But I still didn’t want to fully believe it,” the pianist says of the triumphant night on September 8 when he was presented with the hefty trophy. Due to sheer exhaustion from the intensive week, he was worried that he might drop it during the awards ceremony.
“I had to take quite a bit of time to collect myself and breathe deeply. I told myself to just get through this, and you can celebrate later. It only really dawned on me afterwards that I had won and that my entire life was about to change.”
Even before his win, Namoradze already possessed a noteworthy pedigree of artistic excellence. Born in capital city Tbilisi, Georgia but raised in Hungary, he began piano lessons at age seven, making his orchestral debut at 12. After completing his undergraduate studies in Budapest, Vienna and Florence, he moved to New York City to pursue his master’s degree at The Juilliard School. He later earned a doctorate at the City University of New York, and now based in Berlin.
His early mentors included Emanuel Ax, Yoheved Kaplinsky, Zoltán Kocsis, Matti Raekallio and Elisso Virsaladze, as well as John Corigliano in composition. He sings praises for Ax, whom he keeps in regular touch with — chatting with his revered mentor only a few days before this interview.
“From a purely pianistic perspective, what I learned from him is how to communicate exactly what I want to communicate in terms of proportions, and how they relate to everything else so that there’s a coherence in expression,” he explains, calling Ax, a “master of proportion.” “The greatest way to prepare for an international career is to be really inquisitive […] His boundless generosity and humility is a model for us all.”
Like most high-profile classical musicians used to living like globetrotting nomads, Namoradze has been grounded in Germany since the pandemic first began to bite last spring. His anticipated tours of the US, Canada and Japan during the 2020/21 season were cancelled as concert venues shuttered during the widespread lockdowns.
Despite the closures, he made his London debut at Wigmore Hall in February 2020, and performed a solo recital the following month at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Both were for (now) rare in-person audiences during that tiny sliver of time before the global arts community was hit with a lockdown thunderbolt.
“It’s been surreal,” Namoradze says. “After Boston, it began looking really scary as the pandemic was no longer just a thing in East Asia anymore. We really had no clue how bad it was going to get,” he adds before striking a more optimistic note. “But that being said, I think progress on vaccines has been extremely fast. We really couldn’t have imagined it would have been like this even a few months ago, and you can already see the light at the end of the tunnel. We’re now planning for the fall, which has been really heartening.”
The Phoenix-like rise of livestreamed concerts has been an undeniable silver lining of this past year. Namoradze performed Liszt’s “staggering” Totentanz at the Budapest Festival Orchestra and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58, with the London Philharmonic at Royal Festival Hall.
“As a performer, you either perform for a live audience where you can feel the response of those living beings in the hall, or you do a recording where you have what [Glenn] Gould called that kind of embryonic security of the studio,” he explains.
“Streaming is an in-between point between those two settings, where you may not have a live audience in front of you, but you’re still playing live to audiences in that moment. There may be hundreds or even thousands of people listening, but I can’t see them. The question then becomes, how do you get that energy that you’d get in live performance from that kind of an audience?”
He then answers his query. “Interestingly enough, one can simulate that experience and still have that feeling that the notes you’re playing are touching someone’s ears and heart in that very moment, which is not something one gets in the recording studio. I think that the music world will be much more interconnected in a post-pandemic world. It will be much less localized with the dissolution of boundaries, and I think that’s a good thing.”
The Cognitive Pianist
During this year’s pause in his touring life, Namoradze spends up to five hours a day practising on a hybrid Yamaha AvantGrand piano. He first fell in love with it while living in NYC.
“If I didn’t live as a concert pianist and could just live off practicing, I would,” he says, noting J.S. Bach and Scriabin among his favourite composers.
Namoradze is currently chasing another lifelong passion through post-doctoral studies in neuropsychology at King’s College London. Cognitive science extends to his love for yoga, qi gong, tai chi, and sports psychology, which served him well during the nail-biting finals in Calgary.
He says he’s also applied these same principles to navigating demanding tour schedules, including perennial jet lag, as well as keeping a razor-sharp focus in what he calls “a very turbulent kind of lifestyle.”
One could easily assume that Namoradze might eventually segue into an academic career, but he assures his heart will always be with music. “I don’t plan on going into this field academically, but what I want to do is bring my insights and understanding of it back to musical practice, including the preparation and performing process.”
During the breaks in his touring schedule, Namoradze is busy composing — something that first took root during his self-imposed four-year sabbatical. His evocative solo piano pieces, including Arabesque (2018) and Moon Refracted (2019), among others, are published by Muse Press. He nurtures a penchant for film scores, with two already under his belt.
He shares how John Corigliano played a major role in shaping his compositional voice while studying at Juilliard, with that influence continuing to this day.
“John taught me how to look at musical architecture in a very different way because his approach with composing is very much a kind of top-down view of the work, which you have to conceive of first, before going into the details,” the artist states. “He’ll say an architect will design the large structures before going into the details on the ornaments. He’ll ask you, ‘what is the dramatic narrative?’ or ‘what’s the journey?’ and then you fill in the details.”
But there was another positive impact as well. “He also made me think about any piece of music that I perform in a very different way. I had always been attuned to the larger structures, but this really made me delve into this question even more deeply, in terms of asking what are the broader tectonic plates here? My studies with him were incredibly insightful and had an enormous influence on my work as a musician, both in composition and as a performer.”
Like other trailblazers before him, including renowned Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin, Namoradze also takes great delight in discovering rarely heard musical curiosities. His latest treasures have been the unpublished works by late-Romantic British composer York Bowen, as championed on his debut album with Hyperion.
The Road Ahead
On the horizon is a new piano concerto commissioned for the artist as part of his Covid-adapted Honens prize package, composed by Canadian-American composer Kati Agócs in memory of late Canadian jazz pianist, mathematician, educator, composer, and Honens family member Bruce McKinnon, with its own backstory right out of Hollywood. It is anticipated that the work will premiere in 2022 with additional performances to follow in subsequent seasons.
Agócs had first met McKinnon at age 16, with their close friendship tragically cut short with the latter’s death at 32 from a rare form of cancer in 2007, and during the time Agócs had been writing her quintet, Immutable Dreams. The work was later performed, with Namoradze playing in the ensemble, at the Chelsea Music Festival in 2015. The collaboration marked the beginning of their friendship through their shared Hungarian background and musical sensibility.
After winning the Honens in 2018, Namoradze befriended a couple (competition supporters in Calgary), who turned out to be McKinnon’s parents. The week before his sold-out Carnegie Hall debut on February 10, 2019 — another Honens plum — the pianist received an email from Russell and Vickie McKinnon, who had found Immutable Dreams online in his repertoire list, sharing with him that Bruce was their son.
“The story is astonishing, and incredibly touching, and quite unbelievable in so many respects,” he says with amazement. “When I played Kati’s piece in 2015, I remember thinking I would have loved to have met her friend because he had this very broad outlook. The title Immutable Dreams came from a conversation of theirs before his passing,” he adds.
“Hearing that my friends from Calgary who had flown into New York to hear my concert felt like one of those moments that really attests to the power of music to bring us all together. I was deeply moved by that experience, and we just knew that something has to come out of this which will be her new concerto.”
Nearly three years after his glorious win in Calgary, Namoradze answers thoughtfully when asked how being named Prize Laureate of the renowned competition has impacted his career.
“I often say if there were only one competition I could have chosen to enter, it would have been the Honens. It’s really a mentorship where you receive this incredible team of people committed to your success during those critical first years. It’s important to begin on solid ground, and Honens has provided that for me,” he states.
When asked about the relevancy of competitions in the age of the internet, Namoradze quickly refutes that notion.
“I think if you don’t view competitions as an end in themselves, but rather as a stepping stone, they are still a great way to get heard and still serve an important role for young musicians,” he says.
And speaking of tomorrow’s artists, he offers some advice for young pianists — and possibly future Honens Prize Laureates embarking on their career trajectories.
“One of the most important things is to really make sure that you’re playing with your full conviction,” he says. “It’s also extremely important to have that desire to communicate and show it in everything you say and do, in your practice and anything associated with that, including concerts and competitions. That should always be the guiding principle, and it’s harder to go wrong when you’re coming from a place of absolute musical honesty and intellectual, artistic, and emotional integrity,” he adds.
“Honesty and conviction in everything you do will always be your North Star.”
Funding in support of this content has been generously provided by The Azrieli Foundation.
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