Rising star pianist says top prize of $100K in Calgary will jump-start career

A rising star pianist from the Eurasian country of Georgia says winning a top competition based in Calgary will jump-start his career.

Nicolas Namoradze, 26, says award's affiliated mentorship program makes it 'the whole package'

Nicolas Namoradze is a rising star pianist from Georgia. He won the Honens International Piano Competition. (Nicolas Namoradze)

A rising star pianist from the country of Georgia says winning a top competition based in Calgary will jump-start his career.

Nicolas Namoradze, 26, won the top prize at the Honens International Piano Competition last week — along with its $100,000 cash prize. As the prize laureate, he'll also be placed in a three-year artist development program, valued at half a million dollars and complete with recording opportunities, mentorship and chances to play at the world's top concert halls with major orchestras.

In an interview with the Calgary Eyeopener, Namoradze called the award "the whole package."

"I'm still fully coming to terms with what is going to happen. It's so much more than just winning a prize at a big competition," he said. "It jump-starts one's career and it's an opportunity that's really unlike any other."

The Honens competition was somewhat unusual as Namoradze was pitted against his former classmates, who also studied at Juilliard under the same teacher. The musician said he considers the runners-up, Han Chen and Llewellyn Sanchez-Werner, to be close friends.

The pianist and composer is on the faculty of Queens College at CUNY, and is pursuing a doctorate at the university's New York graduate centre. He previously received his master's from the Julliard School after studying in Budapest, Vienna and Florence. He now composes music for film.

Now with the prize under his belt, Namoradze will take a break from his current posts to focus on being a traditional concert pianist, while eyeing a long-term goal of being both a professional performer and composer.

He spoke with Calgary Eyeopener host David Gray about how he came to win Honens.

Q: Can you tell me about you? Do you come from a musical family?

A: No, actually. My father's a constitutional lawyer. My mother is a political scientist. So no, it's not a musical family. Though my mother did play as a child and I presume that was where the musical kind of talent came from. But I only started playing when I was seven years old, so I didn't start especially young. But once I did start, it became very clear that was probably something I did want to do for the rest of my life, yes.

Q: Did you start out playing Prokofiev or were you banging away at the Beatles? How did you start out?

A: Once I started playing the piano, I was only interested in classical music. But before I began playing the piano, I had always been obsessed with listening to various types of music.

I really had different periods. So sometimes, for a few years, I'd be just obsessed with opera, and then I had a few years I was obsessed with the Beatles, actually. I knew every song and every album.

I even had a period of really loving rock music before I started playing the piano. So my tastes were much less conservative as a six-year-old child than they were a few years later.

Q: I am told there are years at the Honens competition where the audience and the jury don't see eye to eye as to who should win this thing. But this year was not one of those years, and that from the outset, people were impressed by your individuality. That somehow that was evident from the first piece you played right through to the end. How do you do that? How do you take something that was written, in many cases, hundreds of years ago and make it your own?

A: Well, that's a really good question and something we grapple with every day. You know, Honens did make my life a little easier in that respect in that they gave us total freedom in choosing our semi-final solo program. We could just play anything we wanted, which meant I could play some of my own music as well.

The final concerto also was, you know, completely every[one's] choice. We really could have picked anything we wanted as long as it was something the orchestra could do.

So we had a lot of freedom, but yes, as you said, the chamber music programs were set in advance. We had to pick from a couple of options.

What I tried to do is never to listen to a recording of a piece I'm learning because that will inevitable influence your approach. So when I start learning a piece of music, I look at it as if I'm the first one to ever play it and really try to think what is it I want to say about the piece from a very personal standpoint.

Once I have formed a kind of solid interpretative approach, then I might listen to what someone else is playing for, you know, a sense of perspective.

But it is this sense of isolation that helps me find my own voice without any kind of external influences.

Q: One of the joys of winning the Honens is not only the cash prize but you have these recording opportunities that they say are valued at a half a million dollars, which will be fantastic. Once you move through that stage, is your dream to compose more of your own music, soundtracks, this kind of thing?

A: I would envision myself as a composer that primarily writes for the piano and writes for my own concerts, so somewhat in the image of the great pianist composers of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

This was the norm once upon a time. Everyone who performed wrote and everyone who wrote performed. You have figures such as Chopin and Rachmaninoff. They managed to do both and have full careers in both and they didn't have to pick one or the other.

Of course, the majority of their output was for the instrument that they performed on, so that's certainly ... [the] kind of lifestyle I would like to lead.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Hear the full interview with the pianist and a sampling of his playing:

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.