FOR many of the Local music societies across Scotland who will welcome her before the end of this month, the solo piano recital by Clare Hammond will be the final event of their 2017-18 seasons. As a way of enticing subscribers to sign up for the 2018-19 programme, the pianist could hardly be a better choice. Not only is she bringing a programme that covers the waterfront in combining well-loved pieces with rarer repertoire and new music, she will already be a familiar face to many lovers of classic contemporary British cinema.
While much of Hammondâs life and work practice is similar to others of her profession as a keyboard soloist â albeit one operating at a sophisticated level of international contacts and original repertoire â she has the additional calling-card of having played the young Maggie Smith in Nicholas Hytnerâs film version of Alan Bennettâs autobiographical book The Lady in the Van.
The story Bennett told of a homeless woman who parked her Bedford van in the driveway of his north London home in the 1970s and lived there for 15 years may be true, but the character portrayed by Hammond in flashback sequences of Miss Shepherdâs youth are substantially fictional guesswork.
It was only after her death that some details of Miss Shepherdâs past, as a promising concert pianist and a pupil of Alfred Cortot in Paris, emerged.
Hammond explains: âGeorge Fenton, the composer for the film, is a friend of a friend, and when they wanted a pianist rather than an actor to play the part I was asked to try out for the role.â
Her performance as the young Miss Shepherd is very much a playing, rather than a speaking role, so the decision made perfect sense and underlines how much Fenton, who has worked regularly with Hytner and Bennett as well as scoring most of David Attenboroughâs wildlife television productions and some famous films and TV dramas, was integral to the making of the movie. As a teenager he had met Miss Shepherd at Bennettâs house and his score guesses at the music she might have played as a Cortot student.
âThe film uses music in a very clever way, with pieces that are emotionally significant, very touching and an integral part of the story,â says Hammond.
Not only did she appear on screen, but the pianist is also the âvoiceâ of Miss Shepherd in the soundtrack, in which Fenton masterfully integrates the music of Schubert and Chopin with his own composition.
Hammond says she has no interest in pursuing a parallel career as an actor but she has absolutely no misgivings about taking part â although, as their scenes were necessarily entirely separate, she never met Smith. âIt was a good experience in every way,â she says.
The music also went on to have a concert life, which might interest an orchestra such as the RSNO which regularly programmes concerts of film music. In December 2016 Fenton conducted the Philharmonia in a concert of his own music at the Royal Festival Hall, with Bennett reading and Hammond the soloist for a suite of music from The Lady in the Van.
As well as the slow movement of Chopinâs First Piano Concerto, it draws on Schubertâs Impromptus, which will feature in the programme she is bringing to Scotland, although she insists that it is entirely her choice not deliberately to reference the film.
That programme is a very personal one, however, which is full of links to other aspects of her working life to introduce herself to the Scottish audience.
Hammond has played in Scotland before, but not much, with brief visits to Banchory last year and Edinburghâs Queenâs Hall five years earlier. This time she starts at Peebles on Tuesday before visiting Oban, Milngavie, Ardrishaig in Argyll, Perth and Musselburgh.
Her home is in Gloucestershire, shared with husband Peter, a computer programmer, and two very young daughters.
As Hammond and I speak on the phone, the baby is breathing noisily in her arms and, when I arrange to call her, it is something of a surprise that there is no middle-man to fix the appointment, as the pianist runs her own career.
Clearly one half of a tech-savvy couple, as her immaculate link-strewn Website testifies, Hammond concedes that her way of working would not have been possible 20 years ago.
âItâs a different climate because of the internet. I donât have an agent and doing things myself is working better. I like being in control, and promoters prefer you to be in control.â
As well as the Local music clubs in Peebles, Oban and Milngavie, those promoters are also major orchestras and international stops on Hammondâs itinerary. When we speak she has just returned from Poland, where she performs frequently, and the annual Fryderyk Chopin Birthday Concert with the Warsaw Philharmonic, which is broadcast live. It had been a last-minute return invitation â she had been a soloist in 2014 â after the pianist originally booked had fallen ill.
The Polish audience was also the first to hear Hammondâs championing of forgotten Czech composer Josef Myslivecek after she created an edition of his Keyboard Concerto No1 and toured it around the country.
Myslivecek met Mozart in Italy in 1770 and became something of a mentor to the younger composer, if possibly not always the best of influences due to his somewhat scandalous Travel. Although Mozart always spoke of him with affection, Myslivecek became estranged from the Mozart family and died a broken man, disfigured by syphilis and a botched operation designed to alleviate its effects.
Last month Hammond was also in Sweden, working with conductor Nicholas McGegan and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra on the world premiere recordings of both the First and Myslivecekâs Second Concerto, which is due to be released on the Bis label in 2019.
There will be a world premiere in Peebles as well, when she plays Malcolm Hayesâ new Dante-inspired Purgatorio, a short three-movement work, which she describes as âvery beautiful and full of ethereal sonoritiesâ.
She has programmed that piece, written specially for her, to follow the Metopes by Polish composer Karol Szymanowski, tone poems that share those qualities, and inspired by a female character encountered by Odysseus on his homeward voyage.
Audiences will perhaps be on more familiar ground with the works of Haydn (his Fantasia) and Chopin (Etudes) which open and close the programme, as well as with those Schubert Impromptus.
The sequence is something to which the pianist has given careful consideration.
âThere are always structural issues with programme order â you need to have an exciting one at the end. And I like to have a balance between more familiar and contemporary works.
âYou donât want to scare people off but contemporary music needs to be part of a normal recital and not
always live in a contemporary music ghetto.â
If there is a suggestion of the attitude of the teacher in that, it is unsurprising. Like all the best musicians, Hammondâs enthusiasm for the education work she also manages to squeeze into her schedule has an evangelical zeal.
At present that is focused on school concerts near her Gloucestershire home but with plans to extend the work to other areas.
âIt is more important than ever to speak up about music in schools,â she says, and especially to be introducing them to modern pieces.
âAnd it is always lovely to see the real enthusiasm for those from young people.â
Clare Hammond is at Eastgate Theatre, Peebles, on Tuesday, St Johnâs Cathedral, Oban, on Wednesday, Cairns Church, Milngavie, on Friday, and Ardrishaig Public Hall, Argyll, a week today. She has shorter lunchtime recitals in Perth Concert Hall and Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, on Monday, April 30, and Tuesday, May 1. clarehammond.com
Source : HeraldScotland