Every time Canadian virtuoso pianist Marc-André Hamelin comes to town, he's met with thunderous whoops and cheers usually reserved for conquering heroes.
And that's even before he's tickled a single ivory.
The Manitoba Chamber Orchestra features the wildly popular musician during its final concert of the season on Wednesday, where he will perform Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 17, in G Major, K. 453. Renowned for his formidable bravura and his penchant for lesser-known works, the charismatic artist nearly brought down the house when he last appeared here with the MCO in January 2013.
"Mozart's G Major is one of my favourite concerti," Hamelin says over the phone from London, where he has just wrapped up recording his latest CD, Shostakovich's Piano Quintet. "It's just so graceful, so elegant, the thematic material is enchanting. It's always a supreme pleasure to play."
The 52-year-old Hamelin maintains an active concert career that sees him regularly criss-crossing the globe; his gruelling tour schedule includes at least 14 stops throughout Europe and North America alone by the end of August. His recent solo recital at New York City's Carnegie Hall in January also earned effusive praise, with the New York Times lauding the pianist for his "dazzling, tireless fingers... always in the service of emotion."
In the audience that night was MCO music director Anne Manson, who describes his program as "incredibly difficult."
"A couple of things set Marc-André apart from other pianists," Manson says. "First, he has a really amazing technical ability, with fingers that can do almost anything. However, that wouldn't mean very much if he didn't have the imagination that he has. He brings such unusual and creative ideas -- and often a refreshing new perspective to the repertoire he plays."
Hamelin takes delight in the unusual. His eclectic past programs have featured such composers as Leopold Godowsky and Charles-Valentin Alkan. When asked what attracts him to perform more off-the-beaten-path music than Bach, Beethoven and Mozart, Hamelin puts his choices down to his natural curiosity.
"I always wanted to find new things -- it's a perpetual quest for possible undiscovered gems," he says. "But the ultimate pleasure is sharing these works with audiences and showing them what has been lurking in the shadows."
That same spirit of adventure has also borne creative fruit with Hamelin's own compositions, including a set of 12 âtudes in all the minor keys written for piano between 1986 and 2009. He's also just polished off his latest commission, a new piano solo to be premièred during the annual ARD International Music Competition semifinals round in Munich this fall.
Perhaps one of Hamelin's best-known works is his set of three pieces for player piano -- partially inspired by his paternal grandparents' instrument, which he loved to play as a child. It includes the rollicking Circus Galop, which has morphed into a "kind of video game-age anthem" and is now posted online on unauthorized Internet sites showing millions of hits. "And I ain't getting a penny," the composer says ruefully.
One flourishing career would normally be enough. Nurturing two -- or more -- musical passions is daunting. But the versatile artist, equally at home on the world concert stage or in an intimate recording studio, states no preference for either.
"With recording, it's the pleasure of considering what I can leave and how I can help the audience gain an appreciation of either unknown repertoire, or a different view of a piece they already know," he says. "But with performing, there's the sheer pleasure of communicating with a public audience. I don't go onstage to show myself; I go onstage to share."
Wednesday's program also includes Glenn Buhr's Nature Vectors and Bartòk's Divertimento for Strings.