Portrait of a working
classical pianist by Neila Mezynski
Striding across the stage in a determined and focused manner, Thomas Hansen seats himself in front of the piano. He's all business. After adjusting the piano bench, he is ready to perform.
Hansen has been performing for a quarter-century. Born in Massachusetts, near Boston, in 1956, he started exploring the piano at age four. His parents enrolled young Thomas in the New England Conservatory Preparatory Division, a pretty hefty institution for a 5 year old. There, he was introduced to fine instruction and music theory through Shari Fleming, Robert Sherwood and Tibor Szasz. Hansen states, "I think it is really important for pianists to have a well rounded musical education." And that he did, playing music of the Beatles and other pop music by ear that was popular in the '60's. Imitation is one way of learning when first starting out in any art form and that is a part of how Hansen learned.
In high school, Hansen was taught to play the organ by Edwin Swanborn. He says "I was interested in all the sounds and power of the instrument." This early introduction to the variation of sound was integral to his later, broad understanding of the piano. He offers that "I learned a lot about legato playing from that experience."
Hansen recounts that instructor Tibor Szasz introduced him to the colorful Theodore Lettvin (another teacher and concert pianist) whom Hansen worked with all through college; at the New England Conservatory and then through the University of Michigan. Lettvin was Hansen's first important teacher, introducing him to working and performing with other artists and this enriching experience has carried over into his professional life. Hansen states "Lettvin was a very fine pianist and a bit of a character," he kept very long teaching hours starting early in the morning and sometimes going well past midnight. Hansen was often Lettvin's first student, sometimes arriving with frost bitten hands at 7:00A.M, having ridden 10 minutes on his bike; a typical Boston winter for an atypical pianist. Hansen says that Lettvin was an active performer and eventually Hansen started playing 2nd piano when Lettvin needed to rehearse concerti for his concert tours as Hansen filled in the "orchestra" parts. He recalls that "his colleagues refer to him as the 'Hansen Philharmonic.' Such an important influence was Lettvin that upon learning that he was leaving the New England Conservatory to teach at the University of Michigan, Hansen paused for a second and then asked the maestro "what's the tuition there"? An exodus of students then ensued from New England to Michigan; from a cold place to an even colder place. All for the love of a good teacher.
Hansen later received his Master's at University of Michigan and upon returning to Massachusetts, he received his Bachelor of Music degree from the New England Conservatory and started teaching and performing at the South Shore Conservatory; a time he says he will "always remember fondly." "It was an exciting time as a new facility was being built and we got to break it in."
He also gained the admiration of the press with the Boston Globe gushing about his performance of MacDowell Concerto No. 2 with the Concord (MA) Orchestra around 1972 or 1973, saying that the performance "left no doubt about his fluency and the cleanness and lack of hokum in his lively playing were most commendable."
Moving to California in 1981, Hansen met perhaps his greatest mentor, Thomas LaRatta, the director of the Crestmont Conservatory of Music in San Mateo and also on the faculty of Notre Dame de Namur in Belmont. Hansen says he was a profound influence upon his work. "My musical life was forever changed by learning not only the 'how' but the 'why' about so many things at the piano and about music in general."
Nowadays, Hansen enjoys playing duets and duo-piano concerts with long time friend, Daniel Glover. Hansen also finds joy in coaching chamber music. Hansen says the life of a concert pianist is a solitary one so "getting together with other musicians is marvelous."
The analytical Hansen feels every piece is a puzzle so teaching presents great rewards, allowing him the opportunity to not only "find the way in and make it sing" but to develop and mentor a young student along the way. Hansen also taught at Nueva School in Hillsborough, CA and taught at Ecole NotreDame des Victoires in San Francisco. He feels he has been very fortunate "to know so many wonderful musicians and is doing his best to pass it on."
Hansen performs with several symphonies in the Bay area, two being the Peninsula Symphony and the Redwood Symphony. He also performed an all Liszt recital in the Netherlands in May 1989, using an 1866 Steinway; the same piano the great Franz Liszt played no less.
In January 2008, I heard him play the original version of the Sonata #2 of Rachmaninoff, a formidable work and one that Hansen played with abandonment and nuance. "A joyful experience", Hansen reported. Having heard him play several composers' work over the years, I asked him if there was a composer for whom he felt a special affinity and he related a story of the pianist Arthur Rubenstein. When asked this same question, the great pianist stated, "whoever I am playing at the moment." Hansen agrees with that sentiment.
Hansen is in his element when performing, stating that "I love performing although I always wish I had just a little more time to practice." I think that's a universal feeling among artists, 'just a little more time.'
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