Pianist Conor Hanick revisits “Book of Sounds” at Hahn Hall in Santa Barbara

Conor Hanick performs at Hahn Hall on October 27.
| Photo: courtesy

Not an organization to let a landmark season slip easily into the good night, the Western Academy of Music crowns its big 75e anniversary year with a “Mariposa series” of three concerts at Hahn Hall. On the program, a recital by former student Michelle Bradley on December 4 and an All-Star Alumni cello choir on December 17.

But one of the highlights of the series nods to both the Academy of Music and this year’s Ojai Music Festival, where pianist Conor Hanick – faculty member of the Academy over the past decade – has mesmerized audiences with its comprehensive reading of the late German composer Hans Otte. The book of sounds. The hour-plus patchwork of short “chapters,” sometimes echoing Satie, Messiaen, and Morton Feldman, adds up to a seductive language all its own. You have to be there, and you can, at Hahn Hall on Thursday, October 27. (Hanick also performs it in the respectable “Piano Spheres” in Los Angeles on December 12.)

We checked in with Hanick for an update this week.

Is your “Mariposa Series” launch concert a welcome opportunity to return to Santa Barbara and continue on the continuity of what the Academy of Music is?

Conor Hanick: Any invitation to Santa Barbara is welcome, especially if it extends to my work at the Music Academy. This particular performance is a way for me to appear as an ‘off-season’ performing artist, of course, but more than anything it’s an opportunity to share great music with a dear community of friends.

At Hans Otte’s The book of sounds, to my ears, was a highlight of this year’s Ojai Music Festival. Is this a piece you’ve been working on for quite some time now?

I’m so happy to hear that, thank you. I played The book of sounds for almost as long as I know The book of sounds, or about ten years. I first performed the piece in 2014 and have performed it about once a year since, despite the pandemic.

Hearing it as a whole piece – the right way to experience it – the score covers such a range of harmonic ideas, densities and emotional states, but integrates into something greater than the sum of its parts. Is that fair to say, from your insider’s perspective?

Your reading is correct, I think. Like all pieces, some movements have a more immediate voice. But for me, these movements acquire such luminous power in the context of the whole that I can’t really imagine them separately.

The other thing I will say is that the “journey” of the piece – the path created from one movement to the next, and the expressive perspectives of its geography – is somehow both predefined and entirely free. In other words, the piece does something very specific compositionally. But on the human, psychoacoustic level, music suggests an infinity of perceptual modes.

Someone came to me after a performance once and told me that in the last move they had hallucinated themselves in their childhood bedroom, lying alone on a bed, a French window open with the curtains blowing gently in the breeze. It scared me.

Do you think it holds a unique place in the pantheon of works for solo piano, and do you have a desire to spread the gospel about the piece and make it known?

For me, there are few more beautiful pieces. It’s beautiful in the obvious aesthetic sense, with its unapologetic exploration of consonant sound, but it’s also beautiful in the way it invites deep, communal listening. Happy to spread this gospel everywhere.

Is life within the faculty of the Academy of Music a particularly rewarding experience for you?

Next summer will be my tenth year as a teaching artist at the Academy of Music. It is my artistic home away from home and I look forward to being with my brilliant colleagues and the remarkable Fellows each year.

What projects are you engaged in right now that you find satisfying and challenging?

I am preparing a new piano concerto written for me by composer Samuel Adams, which we will premiere in February with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the San Francisco Symphony. It certainly keeps me busy and it’s a total blockbuster. I’m also learning Berg’s Sonata for the first time – after all these years of teaching and obsessing over it – and I’ve never had so much fun digging into a new score.

Willem, my three-year-old son, is also a project – satisfying and challenging – and I can’t wait to bring him to Santa Barbara next summer for the festival.

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