Nicolas Namoradze © Nathan Nelson
Nicolas Namoradze
© Nathan Nelson

It is difficult to believe that the concert pianist Nicolas Namoradze has not yet reached the age of 30. Mature, unapologetically cerebral, precisely spoken, his conversation entirely free of clichés and snappy sound-bites, nobody sounds less like a millennial. I am conscious during our conversation of feeling I am stepping back into a past of more composed and unhurried manners; yet Namoradze is also a man of the moment, his career blossoming after his big win at the 2018 Honens International Piano Competition in Calgary. He is also emphatically cosmopolite: although his roots in Georgia and Hungary have shaped his musical idiom, he would now describe himself comfortably as a European New Yorker, at home shuttling between the great cities of the world.

It is undoubtedly a mature choice – and indeed a decisive statement – to retreat for several years at the cusp of a career, yet this is exactly what Namoradze did. When asked about his win at the Honens, he immediately starts with the critical decision he took four years earlier to step away from active concertizing and the competition scene altogether. This was no four years in the wilderness: he spent his time finding himself as a musician and developing his voice, choosing what kind of programmes and repertoire he wanted to play. It also allowed him to write. “It was during those years that my composing became increasingly central to my profile as an artist”, he adds.

I comment that his choice was a brave and unusual one, in a world where getting attention as the bright young thing seems vital: in the beginning of a celebrity performing career, managers might suggest, is the brand. This sort of brand-conscious media-savvy thinking seems very foreign to Namoradze. His answer comes from a very different place. “I felt that there was no need to rush… I felt it was better to get out there when I really was equipped with everything I wanted to have.” His words seem like a wry reproof to a frenetically-paced era which has infected even music. Namoradze is an anomaly surely, but he has a point. One reads all too often of talent burnt-out after being in the limelight too young, too soon, when too unsure of itself. Namoradze has clearly given himself ample time to develop the boundaries of his personal and musical self, and there is something very grounded about him.

Nonetheless despite his early aloofness from the concert circuit, he is immensely conscious of the privilege of winning at Honens. “It has” he confesses “made all the difference.” He proceeds to describe the impacts: the series of concerts including debuts in some of the great halls of the world, the tours in Japan, Canada, and USA. His engagements this year will take him to Israel, Berlin, Boston, Japan and the London Philharmonic in October for the Beethoven 250th celebrations. Then there are the recording contracts with Hyperion and Steinway. Crucially, he now has an artist manager based in New York (where he now resides), and separate artist management in Japan, a country which has long fascinated him. I ask him how difficult it was, as a fledgling performer, to gain artistic management before the win. But he can’t say, because he was in retreat, and never had occasion to look.

How challenging has the transition been from artistic shelter to being ‘flung into the fray’ (the words are his) of a life of global engagements and publicity? ‘Not that tricky’, he offers. He was ready, and again he credits his time away with making him ‘fully charged’ when the time did come. Of course, there has been much to learn, and hours and hours of practice. The key skill at this early career stage, he adds, is flexibility, the ability to rapidly adjust – it keeps you on your toes. I ask him what he finds the biggest challenge of his new life as a concert pianist. It comes down to the humble but real “vicissitudes of circumstances”, not least late airplanes and jet lag, all of which you “have to leave backstage – or hopefully”, he laughs, “at the hotel.” Whatever happens, he owes it to his audience to find his focused core.

It is clear from his slightest articulation that Namoradze has a profound sense of himself as a musician, that the life of the mind in him is ever active. He comes across, I suggest, as an intellectual in music. Does he see himself as such? He permits himself a polite titter. “When it comes to monikers, you know, I’ve often been called the mad scientist of the piano.” Later, he insists that his intellectual approach applies to all aspects of his music making, not just technique, but interpretation. “I always try to get my brain involved”.

This comes to the fore again when we discuss how he chooses a concert programme. “I want to create a kind of narrative that carries the listener on from beginning to end”. He is emphatic about challenging his listeners with “unexpected combinations”. He jokingly compares it to molecular gastronomy, the science of having unusual combinations in a dish; he mentions his recent coupling of Scriabin and Bach in programmes. That unusual “something” invites the listener to re-examine music that they know well, or new music they don’t know at all (he has championed York Bowen, for example, much of whose work remains unpublished). It is clear that there is a lot of headwork that goes into the making up of a programme. Even his encores, he adds tellingly, are planned carefully. There is “no throwing of bon bons”: they must bear some relation to the programme as a whole.

For all the intellectualism of his approach, there’s always room for performative intuition and instinct, however. He insists that his pre-concert meditation practices help him to be spontaneous, “in the moment”. He talks about entering into an almost “different state of consciousness” on stage, of feeling differences in his audiences, and, glowingly, of having had a “quasi-mystical” experience playing in the Bunka Kaikan hall in Tokyo, his favourite venue.

As a performer-composer, he finds it heartening that this dual identity is coming back into fashion again, as that is the way it always was, except for a split in the latter half of the 20th century. How does his pianism shape his composition and his composition his pianism? First, he feels his playing is composerly. He also has a sense of the limitations of any written transcription of musical ideas. “It makes me understand how little one can convey on the printed page – the extent to which one must read between the lines. It made me sensitive to what a composer might want a performer to understand instinctively but cannot mark in a score.”

Nicolas Namoradze performing at the Honens International Piano Competition © Monique de St. Croix
Nicolas Namoradze performing at the Honens International Piano Competition
© Monique de St. Croix

Of course, it works both ways: his pianism also shapes his compositions, not least in his interest in the mechanics of piano playing. It’s an artisanal interest, he adds. In his teenage years, he took time to experiment with approaches to the instrument. “I didn’t just take instructions about techniques as gospel – I kept questioning the foundations”. Again, the enquiring mind emerges, refreshingly, to the surface. “The piano is very unergonomic – it’s not a natural thing... Fingers are differently shaped and have a different weight, and yet we want to play evenly in a controlled manner.” He has been able to dissect these interests in his etudes. No doubt his capacity to stand back from the instrument he plays and consider it as an analytical and historical object must have helped when teaching music history in Queens College, including to those not even majoring in music. One can imagine him starting from the beginning, familiarizing them with an alien “idiom”. That, he says, is the key. From experience, he thinks it only takes a short time to, as it were, bring someone in.

On that note, the generalized anxiety among the chattering classes about graying audiences does not appear to touch him deeply. I approach the question, probing what, as a contemporary, he makes of the cultural attitudes of his fellow millenials/generation xers, and if he is at all concerned. With someone who seems to transcend his particular generation, the question seems, in retrospect, a cheap one. Once again, he seems older than his years, philosophically pointing out that that scare-mongering about the imminent demise of classical music is, in fact, a centuries-old trope. It is often the case, anyway, he said that people mature into classical music; his delicately unspoken implication is that the younger generation may well be no different in that regard. He also proceeds to point to a trend of increased listening to classical music on Spotify, so things are certainly not as bleak as they might seem.

The only question that stalls him is when I ask him what one feature of his playing he would like to be remembered for. He hesitates before asking permission to “step outside” his own skin for a moment, and see his playing as it has been most often described – that is, as both very personal and idiosyncratic, but still true to the composer’s intentions or the intentions of the music. There is no doubt that for Namoradze, this is the best job in the world. He cites the enormous privilege – and responsibility, indeed – he bears to some of the world’s greatest music: to live with that and for that is enough for a lifetime.

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This interview was sponsored by the Honens International Piano Competition.