The musician with his best friend. Photo by Carole Sternicha
“I moved here out of a sense of adventure,” says the Belgian-born concert pianist Steven Vanhauwaert. “I had just finished my Master’s degree in piano performance in Brussels and I had the opportunity to study at USC.” He was given a full scholarship, and at the USC Thornton School of Music he continued his musical studies with professors Kevin FitzGerald, James Bonn (Agent 008?), and John Perry.
Vanhauwaert’s intention was to stay for two years and then return to Belgium. Fate, of course, took him by the elbow and said: I have other plans for you. “I met my wife here and then my career started to develop.”
In short, the pianist now resides in Redondo Beach instead of Antwerp or Liège, and tomorrow night – Friday, March 22 – he’s the featured soloist on Beethoven’s “Piano Concerto No. 3” when Barry Brisk and the Beach Cities Symphony perform it at Marsee Auditorium in Torrance.
Echoes of music past
In his profession, or I should say at his level of professional accomplishment, Steven Vanhauwaert travels frequently, and so he makes it back to Brussels about twice a year. Being in L.A., he says, is a good location, because he often journeys to Asia to perform and thus he’s somewhere in the middle of the world – or, as South Bay residents might insist, the center of the universe.
“I’m very happy here,” he asserts. “I really like the open atmosphere and I feel like everything is possible here and that people can accomplish what they want to accomplish without meeting too much resistance. There’s a lot of encouragement, especially for music. Also, there’s an advantage to being a foreigner somewhere and bringing a different culture with you; it makes you more attractive and people are more interested in where you come from and what the mix is. I think that helped me in coming here, and the fact that I’m here helps me going back to Belgium because I’m coming from the Americas and I have a different exposure there. So it’s sort of a mutually beneficial arrangement for me.”
Vanhauwaert has plunked down a CD, a new recording made with fellow pianist Danny Holt under the moniker 4handsLA, with the very definite title “Paris 1913.” Well, this journalist surmises, you must have an affinity for music from the early 20th century?
Steven Vanhauwaert. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski
“If I could go back to one period – like Woody Allen in the movie ‘Midnight in Paris’ – it would be the early 1900s in Paris to see or hear what different kinds of music were there. To me it’s one of the most interesting times because there are so many different styles developing so quickly next to each other.”
The centerpiece of the album, primarily because it actually was composed around 1912 and 1913, is Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps” (or “The Rite of Spring”). The composition, divided into two parts, is well over half an hour. “Paris 1913” then continues with Satie’s “Parade,” Poulenc’s “Sonata for Four Hands,” and Ravel’s “Rapsodie Espagnole” – all from the same era if not exactly the same year.
As with most artists, Vanhauwaert has been influenced by art forms outside of his own field. He mentions his appreciation of art nouveau architecture and I immediately think of my visits to the Horta Museum (the former home and studio of Victor Horta) and the Solvay house, also designed by Horta, and both in Brussels.
“I love combining architecture with paintings and music to see how they influenced each other,” he says, “sometimes with a thousand miles in between them – and people didn’t know they were doing the same things, but they were. It’s sort of an atmosphere that was hanging around.” Yes, and there’s a term somewhere for this spontaneous combustion of ideas – a wonderful topic unto itself.
“It was a golden time for Paris and for Brussels,” Vanhauwaert continues. “Everything was blooming. I love the cities very much: There’s a great history when you walk around there, but it almost feels like some of it is past glory, a remembrance of better times that were behind.”
A kind of living nostalgia, perhaps, that one may find in such disparate locations as Madrid and Kyoto.
And Lisbon as well, which also happens to be a city in which Vanhauwaert will be performing in just two months. He then fires a question back at me: “Do you know by any chance the Portuguese writer Saramago?”
Asking Bondo Wyszpolski if he knows José Saramago is like asking a cow if it knows about green grass. When we each learn that Saramago is the other’s favorite author it’s clear that we’re friends and allies for life. “There are not so many writers that I’m so crazy about that I would read everything (they’ve written), but he’s one of them.”
But neither literature nor art would be at the top of Vanhauwaert’s list of influences: “I would say my biggest influence – as a person, as a musician, as an artist – is the interaction with people. There’s nothing that I like more than going to a country that I don’t know or a city that I don’t know and just sitting somewhere, having coffee, and just watching, just observing people – how they walk, how they talk, what they do.” It’s this human interaction, he feels, which most heightens his artistic sensibility.
Diversity becomes him
That artistic sensibility – Vanhauwaert’s deft touch on the keyboard, color, tone, pacing, and so on – can be heard on his recorded music (I’m listening to his exquisite interpretation of ‘Jeux d’Eau à la Villa and d’Este’ as we speak), but he often performs locally – well, on the Westside and in Los Angeles. A few weeks back I heard him play upstairs in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with violinists Tereza Stanislav and Sarah Thornblade, violist Rob Brophy, and cellist Cecilia Tsan as part of the Le Salon de Musiques series. They tackled seldom-heard works by Frank Bridge and Juliusz Zarebski. Watching their eyes dart across the sheet music it seemed to me that they were visualizing architectural plans and then constructing a grand but intangible edifice right on the spot.
This delicious series was founded by French pianist François Chouchan of the Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique de Paris (I love how that rolls off the tongue), and it’s the sort of thing that the late, great, music critic Alan Rich would be writing about were he still with us. Each concert draws to a close with a conversation between the audience and the musicians, and then everyone sips champagne and eats gourmet food. All of which is my preamble to announcing that on Sunday, April 14, Vanhauwaert will team up with cellist Andrew Shulman to play works by Chopin and Delius, whom you’ve heard of, and then a certain Schumann of whom you likely have not – neither Robert nor Clara, but Camillo Schumann. This is very possibly the U.S. premiere of the latter’s “Cello Sonata in C minor.”
“So it will be interesting to combine a very known work with an unknown work,” Vanhauwaert says.
That’s what I enjoy, I tell him, a concert that gives us the familiar and the unfamiliar, something to lean on that we know and something that we don’t, and then encouraging us to try and wrap our minds around it.
“When I give a concert,” Vanhauwaert says, “I like to introduce the piece and what I like about it to the audience. This two- or three-minute introduction warms them up, they get to know you a little bit personally, and then I think they’re much more open and receptive to whatever piece you might be bringing that they’re not familiar with yet.”
As for the concert this Friday, Vanhauwaert says he’s looking forward to it, and then adds: “Beethoven’s father was Flemish, so I guess he’s almost Belgian in a way.”
Although he didn’t originally set out to play in small ensembles, Vanhauwaert has found that he very much enjoys doing so. “I love chamber music,” he states. “It helps me to become a better musician because I play with so many different instruments, people with different temperaments, with different backgrounds, and everybody has a different view on how to make music. If you take some of what they have and give some (of what you have) to them, you meet somewhere in the middle. So I like the interactions with different people.”
He also likes diversity, he says. “I like playing solo recitals, which I believe is about 20 percent of my concerts, and I like to play with orchestras and do (piano) concertos because it’s just a great experience.” However, he adds, “There’s something lonely about doing a concert tour – a month in 15 different cities and being by yourself playing a solo recital – because you’re always by yourself in a hotel room, everything’s by yourself, and you play the same program over and over.”
The antidote to that, of course, is touring with a small ensemble: “When you’re traveling you’re always in a group, you have more fun; it’s a more rich experience.”
And not only that. “I guess it also helps my career,” Vanhauwaert says, “because every time I play with somebody else, with a cellist, two years later that cellist needs a pianist for another concert, so he asks me for that. Or he recommends me to his violinist friend. It’s sort of like a snowball effect.”
Maybe one day he’ll specialize a little more, but right now “I want to keep my career as broad as possible. I look forward to what the future brings. So far it’s been one surprise after the other. Knock on wood, I’ve been lucky.”
That extra spark
Vanhauwaert impresses me because he digs deep into the repertoire, and he seeks out the also-rans, composers who were very good but didn’t quite clear the top hurdle of true genius or innovation. These people, he says, actually help us to appreciate the deities of music – Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, etc – and to understand why they are held in such high esteem.
“If we think of Beethoven or Bach or Mozart doing something of genius, it’s not that they came out of nowhere and suddenly they have this incredible accomplishment,” he says. There’s usually a generation or two that’s been edging closer to the breakthrough, “and right before they come to fruition there’s ten, twenty years of people doing things that are very similar, but there’s a spark missing. And then they (our composers of genius) come in and they add the spark. Frequently they run away with all the credit for having done everything, which they haven’t always done. They’ve embodied the heart of it – but there’s a wave of influences before that.”
And when Vanhauwaert is not on the road?
“When I’m not traveling, when I’m not playing concerts, it’s nice to share my musical enthusiasm with young people who are very eager to learn. It’s important to acquire knowledge in music; it’s also important to share it. Not only by playing but also by teaching people how to do it because music makes people happy, it makes for a better society in a way. It’s important, especially in the U.S., where there’s not too much music in public education. I think it’s important that there’s a lot of music taught, that everybody’s exposed to it. Even though it’s a difficult thing to do, we can only try to make a difference.”
For information on Vanhauwaert’s performance with cellist Andrew Shulman on April 14, call (310) 498-0257 or go to LeSalondeMusiques.com.