Mirette Hanna is the 23-year-old Egyptian pianist who won the Absolute First Prize (Category “B” ex-aequo, with Nadav Verbin) at the Roma International Piano Competition. The event was held in the first week of November, an annual event organised by the cultural association Fryderyk Chopin operating in Rome; and its Absolute First Prize is ranked higher than the First Prize in the same competition.
During the competition, Hanna played Beethoven’s Sonata No 30, Op 109; Chopin’s Ballade No 2 in F major, “Soiree dans la Grenade” by Debussy and Prokofiev’s Sonata No 2 in D minor, Op 14.
Composed in 1820, Sonata Op 109 is one of the last works by the composer. Hanna reveals that she enjoyed the work especially for its “deep emotions, power and philosophy hidden in this work.” In Chopin, she found the contrasting characters between the work’s two sections.
“There is this captivating conflict translated to music: the first part of this sonata carries naïve and dreamy emotions, while the second is agitated and filled with fire. It’s as if we’re looking at Chopin’s life, divided between dreamy endeavours and harsh reality,” Hanna comments. Yet, according to her, the jury -- which included renowned names from Austria, Italy, the UK, Bulgaria and Russia -- particularly enjoyed her take on “La soirée dans la Grenade” (Evening in Grenada), the second part of Debussy’s Estampes. Hanna was commended for having captivated with remarkable sensitivity the peculiar character of the composition.
Looking back at the competition, she recalls it with delight. “It was a one-round competition, and the programme was relatively small. In parallel, the organisation was impeccable; everyone made sure that we felt relaxed. The piano was so beautiful, it responded very well; also the acoustics of the hall were very good. All these conditions helped me a lot to reduce stress, to think about music and enjoy it, diverting my thoughts away from eight great pianists listening to me and judging,” Hanna explains, underlining that participating in such international events is not only an important personal gain but also something that involves a sense of accountability.
“Being surrounded by so many nationalities puts a responsibility on each one as we represent our country, whether we realise it or not. I feel this responsibility always when I stay abroad; not only when playing, but even in my way of behaving.”
A conversation with the 23-year-old reveals a passionate artist looking at life with a charmingly positive spirit. One of her first teachers, Marcelle Matta underlines in Hanna her musicality and intelligence. “Mirette always projects serious attitude entwined with an obvious modesty. Moreover, she tries to broaden her knowledge: she studies new languages and reads a lot, trying to grasp culture in its large sense. This is very important for someone who wants to become a real artist,” Matta comments.
Hanna’s hard work has been rewarded by scholarships and prizes while she remains grateful and humbled by each of the recognitions she receives. Hanna’s dreams, in large part coloured by the charming innocence of a young soul, are nevertheless well-balanced; they incorporate a good understanding of the field and an awareness of the challenges faced in art and life in general. The prize revealed that the Roma International Piano Competition is not Hanna’s first recognition from an international competition, yet probably one of the most important ones so far. Equally to its value in the music field, for Hanna, the prize is proof of her continuous development.
Mirette Hanna’s total dedication to music and art is not surprising. She was born into a family of artists; paintings done by her parents — both interior designers — decorate the walls of the house. “My family is fully indulged in the world of arts; we are surrounded by artists,” Hanna explains.
Hanna’s older brother Shady is a cellist, educated in Egypt and France, currently teaching at the Cairo Conservatory. “As a very young child watching my brother playing an instrument, I wanted to do the same,” Hanna says of the origin of her interest in music. “Later on, we started to play a lot together, and though at the beginning I wasn’t as good as Shady, he was always very patient, encouraging me all the way through.”
At the Cairo Conservatory, Hanna started her music lessons with Amal El-Shahed, with whom she studied for a year before Marcelle Matta took her under her wing. “Professor Matta introduced me to this wonderful universe and made me love music and piano. She has a unique way of teaching and transfers her love of piano to her students...” Hanna remains deeply appreciative of the time she spent studying with Matta.
While still a student at the Cairo Conservatory, at the age of 14, Hanna participated in the First Dubai International Peace Music Festival for Young Virtuosos, in which competition she won second prize. Hanna underscores the fact that, though not without its imperfections, the Cairo Conservatory opened many doors to her.
“The Cairo Conservatory offers a lot of opportunities to children and youth. I could play with the Cairo Conservatory Orchestra when I was 18. In parallel, I also performed with chamber ensembles. Professors are always very encouraging and put a lot of effort in teaching us how to deal with stage fright and how to face the audience in concert halls,” she explains.
Having completed her studies at the Cairo Conservatory with distinction of honour, Hanna travelled to France where she entered the class of Pascal Jourdan at the Regional Conservatory of Montpellier. “It was a very small conservatory but I admired the teacher. I benefited a lot from Jourdan’s practical advice. He taught me how to combine intellectuality with emotions, two factors that complete each other in art,” Hanna recalls.
Having spent one year in Montpelier, she moved to the Regional Conservatory of Lyon. She describes this experience as particularly interesting mainly due to “the inspiring artistic atmosphere of this cultural city.” In Lyon, Hanna had a chance to attend many concerts and visited a number of museums.
“I also made many friendships with artists from different countries. Together we would discuss music, the differences between schools, and cultural differences generally;” she describes the Lyon experience as profoundly enriching on the musical and personal levels. While still in France, in 2011, Hanna won first prize at Les Joutes Superieures des Adhemar, a competition for young pianists organised by the Musiqualitas Association in Montelimar.
Hanna’s educational endeavours directed her further, to Switzerland, where she is currently enrolled at the Haute Ecole de Musique de Geneve, Site of Neuchatel, in the class of the renowned Austrian pianist Gottlieb Wallisch. Her stay in Switzerland is possible thanks to the scholarship offered by the Oeuvre St Justin Foundation in Fribourg. “In Geneva, I found a programme that stresses pedagogy in music, something I’m predominantly interested in, since one day I will go back to Egypt to teach.”
And, indeed, Hanna’s approach to music and pedagogy keeps directing her thoughts to the concept of sharing her experience with others. Equally, her dreams are linked to music education and projects that she hopes to realise in Egypt. “Music changes us into better humans, it feeds our soul. I really hope that one day I’ll be able to give children all over Egypt the opportunity to study music. We do not have many music schools. It is important, especially in this transitional period of Egypt’s history, to invest in music education. This can significantly contribute to the country’s development.”
As a performer, Hanna has already cooperated with the Cairo Symphony Orchestra, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Chamber Orchestra and the Alexandria Opera Orchestra. She has also performed with the Emirates Youth Orchestra and participated in several workshops for young musicians organised in Egypt and internationally. Since 2011, Hanna has been a piano teacher at the Cairo Conservatory, currently on study leave.
Once she completes her Master of Pedagogy studies in Geneva, in 2014, she will return to Egypt. She will continue performing and will probably start looking for ways to realise her dreams. Hanna seems to enjoy performing music by numerous composers — pointing to a specific joy she experiences in chamber formations — and it is hard for her to point to favourite compositions, as she finds something interesting and inspiring in each.
“I would also like to re-establish our trio ensemble that started in 2007 with Mahmoud Said on violin and Shady Hanna on cello. Hopefully we will be able to perform in many locations in Egypt, at schools, etc... and maybe internationally, should the opportunity come.”
In parallel, Hanna underlines her interest in Egyptian folk and traditional music. “I believe in the beauty emerging from the folkloric material. I like how we can make a magical contact with the audience by presenting it in concerts or as elements in teaching methods. I hope that Egyptian composers have the same motivation and can help us in this subject.”
But for now, as she pursues her education in Geneva and looks positively into the future, drawing plans, Hanna understands that dedication is one of the core factors that will allow her to realise her dreams. While she has a significant number of successes on her hands, she also manages to turn challenges into important lessons.
“There were some trials I failed in. And I think these trials were the best thing I learnt from, and will always learn from. Of course it is a nice feeling I have each time I succeed in doing something; it helps me progress. Yet, I also learn from my mistakes. In both cases I feel there is never enough and there is always more to achieve. I don’t think I will ever reach an end.”
This article was originally published in Al Ahram Weekly