“I had the privilege to work with Ambre Hammond on one of my most demanding compositions, which was premiered in Sydney, Australia (my “Double Concerto for Trumpet, Piano and Orchestra”). Needless to say she has impeccable virtuosity. And now she is bringing up another facet of her musical personality: she is a great composer. I just listened to her “Night Flowers” and it is wonderful! My warmest congratulations to Ambre”.
– Lalo Schifrin, 2018
Ambre, you passed your Associate and Licentiate AMEB diplomas before you were a teenager – what was it like being so proficient at your instrument at such a young age?
I don’t think I realised it was anything out of the ordinary to be playing Chopin Ballades and Beethoven Sonatas at 12, as it’s what I had grown up with so it seemed completely normal.. but the first time I knew that playing the piano was my ‘passion for life’ was after the year of preparation and intense discipline required to pass those 2 exams as well as the 2 compulsory theory exams. This really taught me the value of extraordinary effort and to not be afraid of hard work!
Were there any repertoire milestones? Any major works that were a feat to overcome?
Most definitely. Learning the Rachmaninoff 3rd concerto for my debut performance with orchestra in Argentina at 16 was quite a nightmare despite my obsessive love for Rachmaninoff, as I only had 3 months to learn the piece! And I managed to do it on my first piano, a trusty little Kawai upright that truly stood the test of time and many thousands of hours of hammering away at the keys 🙂
What Kawai piano did you learn on at home? How did it handle your demanding practice regime?
I think it was similar to the ND-21 – it was so small it would shake when I was playing the Rachmaninoff, yet it lasted me right through until I left home! If I think back to the significant amount of playing time weekly (on average between 50 and 60 hours a week) this dear little piano took a beating, yet stayed strong and kept it’s tuning incredibly well!
Who were your most influential teachers? What was the best piece of advice they gave to you?
My mother was my primary teacher, but she would take me to visit teachers occasionally to get some additional thoughts on my performance. She herself was not a pianist but was definitely an original ‘tiger mum’ of the most epic kind! Yet I’m grateful for the work ethics she taught me, and I’m also appreciative of the fact she insisted I research everything to do with the composers, immersing myself in their life and times to truly understand the thought behind each composition and the style of the era and that particular piece. She would also insist I frequently listen to the greatest pianists we have on record, including the piano rolls of pianists and composers such as Rachmaninoff, Hoffman, Paderewski etc.
Describe your first experience playing with an orchestra?
It was the Rach 3! In Argentina. I was 16, overseas for the first time, loving the vibe of South America and I honestly had no idea what to expect. What a piece to kick off your first time in front of an orchestra and conductor! It didn’t help that the stage of the old yet beautiful theatre was at a severe slant and so the grand piano had one leg propped up with a brick! Comical to think of it now but terrifying then 😉
The performance went well and it was a triumphant evening.
What was it like to play with acclaimed trumpeter, Mr James Morrison?
It was a magical night. There are always many, many smiles whilst making music with James.
Have your life experiences and international travels influenced your compositional style? If so, how?
Interestingly enough, I think it was a discovery of jazz in my early 20s that crept into my system in a very intense way, enabling me to discover a love of certain sounds, voicing’s and style which now enables me to compose in a really natural and relaxed way. Definitely life experiences contribute, visiting Paris for the first time really got the creative juices flowing, being in Italy is bliss for me and I could spend my life there writing music! But also, almost every piece I write has been dedicated to someone dear to me, and that goes for animals too! I’ve almost got an albums worth of pieces dedicated to various creatures that have impacted on my life in one way or another. Including a kelpie, a kitten and even an Ibis called Graham 🙂 My love of nature is as strong as my love of music.
What was your main inspiration for your first album, ‘Akasha’?
My godfather Lars who was actually the only father figure in my life, was probably the greatest subconscious inspiration behind the album. His existence was pure kindness and he perfected the art of being non-judgemental and so was my hero, and I wrote a lot of the music during his final days, and one of the tracks ‘Rain’ was written on a hired keyboard in his home during a torrential night rainfall during a very peaceful time just before he passed. It was a very reflective, difficult time where I found complete solace in writing and it was a very strengthening process as well.
When did you decide to found Girl Piano Truck? What was the driving force behind this?
2012 was the year the concept of Girl Piano Truck was born. The idea was to put a piano in a truck and visit remote and especially disadvantaged areas of the world giving free concerts in schools and orphanages.
I had given concerts in schools and aged care facilities throughout my life since I was a little girl growing up in the countryside and I understood the value of taking classical music to these places and seeing the burst of energy and the brightening of eyes, the inhales of joy and the overall positive rush that would ensue after such events…so, I wanted to continue this vocation in the most remote, difficult to access and poverty stricken places in the world. I acted on impulse and passion and I haven’t regretted a single step despite the huge effort, extensive time needed to organise the trips not to mention the cost which has been from my own pocket. It’s my true passion project and I would go as far as saying its my raison d’être and I’m excited for the next adventure which will include Indonesia, Ethiopia and the Ukraine.
You have taken Girl Piano Truck to India, East Timor, Thailand, Belarus, The Philippines and Africa – describe one of your most touching memories.
Thailand – I had an Elephant walk through the middle of the concert. THAT was something new!
The Philippines – giving a concert inside ‘Payatas’ the worlds most inhabited rubbish dump where appx 120,000 people live and make a living sifting through the rubbish. The resilience and beauty of the people of The Philippines despite unimaginable struggle for so many of them is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Every smile on every child’s face was as though there was a sparkling diamond amongst the rubbish and waste. On this trip, giving concerts for street kids and orphans was a real test for me as a mother to be able to keep my emotions intact, but I have never felt as though the music I love was being shared in the right place as I did during this tour of 20 concerts in 12 days. It was intense but incredible.
One other stand out moment in GPT travels would be the day we visited a mental asylum in a remote forest 2 hours outside of Minsk, Belarus. A very powerful afternoon of shared music, faces fraught with tension and expectancy, and then the pure joy I felt in that room as I began to play Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Beethoven; music that you could tell immediately the audience related to (being Europe) and after the final note the entire room rose to their feet cheering and shouting and ran to the stage to bring me little gifts they had made and flowers etc. It was an electrifying moment actually. It was such a hidden away location with a room full of what I guess you could easily call ‘the forgotten people’ and I have to say I had never felt so at home! The residents were told ‘a girl from Sydney is coming here with a piano to give you a concert’ and the beautiful irony is…they thought I was the crazy one! 🙂 Meeting these people afterwards was equally astounding, I met great artists, a doctor, an engineer, a grandmother. I heard some very extraordinary stories and it humbled me and gave me more motivation to continue taking GPT throughout the world with the one mission of bringing hope and joy through music.
What is the biggest ‘life lesson’ you have learned through music?
I could delve into this question and get quite philosophical, but I think ill just say that the biggest life lesson I have learned is that..
“Life itself isn’t easy.. Music is.. This makes life incredibly complicated and difficult and yet Music fixes all complications!”
It’s an endless and glorious cycle that I wouldn’t trade for anything.
What are your next projects/collaborations on the horizon?
I am also preparing for a performance with orchestra of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. I’ve just finished writing music for my 9th album of which 100% of the sales will be donated to the Australian Cancer Research Foundation.
Amongst all of this ill also be busy learning new rep, composing new music and practicing on my beloved Kawai, managing a sensational 11 piece Salsa Orquesta called ‘Malo Malo’, riding my motorcycle, attending Karate classes which I love with a passion, hanging out with my extremely cool 17 year old, and teaching a bunch of really fantastic advanced piano students at the Master Piano Institute. There won’t be much sleep in 2020!