What’s next in classical music? Max Hammond, for one

For aspiring recitalist Max Hammond, piano performance and mathematics offer variations on a thrill — testing the limits of possibility.
Max Hammond

Max Hammond (Photo by Dan Renzetti)

Over the winter, Max Hammond gave more time than usual to the piano — about eight hours a day, up from his long-term average of about five. He was applying to conservatories and aiming to impress.

The mathematics major from Los Angeles also took care to provide for his customary allotment of nightly rest: “I can’t function without eight or nine hours,” he said.

The extra keyboard and pillow time paid off: Hammond was accepted at six top music conservatories. After Yale, he’ll enroll at Julliard as a master’s degree candidate in solo piano performance, in tune with his pursuit of a career as a recitalist steeped in but hardly confined to the classical music cannon.

Max Hammond playing a piano

I want to figure out what’s next in classical music,” said Hammond, a member of Silliman College and past winner of Yale’s Sharp Prize for “most outstanding performer in the junior class.”

Hammond’s tastes are broad: His current favorite composers include, on the one hand, Robert Schumann, the 19th-century Romantic, and, on the other, contemporary classical talents as György Ligeti, Unsuk Chin, and Alex Paxton.

Paxton’s work “ilolli-pop” is for Hammond “the absolute embodiment of joy — pure exuberance,” and, in a nod to his delight in contemporary music, Hammond began all his conservatory auditions with Ligeti’s “Etude No. 6: Autumn in Warsaw,” a technically challenging piece. Ligeti’s work sometimes “verges on the unplayable,” Hammond said — just how he likes it.

I find the idea of brushing up against impossibility very exciting at the keyboard,” he said.

The opportunity to push boundaries is part of math’s appeal, too: “How do you make your mind do something you didn’t think it could do earlier in the day?”

To this end, he took such courses as “Intermediate Complex Analysis,” “Fields and Galois Theory,” and served as a peer tutor for four years.

He also sampled liberally from Yale’s other academic offerings, including nearly a second major’s worth of courses in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies.

For all his palpable excitement about Julliard, Hammond said Yale was the right place for his undergraduate experience.

I want to have a lot of things to play about,” he said. “Yale has given me the space to think about what voice I have and what I want to use it to say in classical music.”

Happily, Yale itself is home to the renowned Yale School of Music, and Hammond has been able to enjoy the best of two worlds.

As a senior, for example, he was one of six students — and the only undergraduate — in a graduate-level music seminar focused on the study and performance of “Pierrot lunaire,” the Albert Schoenberg melodrama. It culminated in a live performance by the class at the Schoenberg Center — in Vienna — as part of the composer’s 150th birthday celebration.

I’ve gotten this insane conservatory education at Yale,” said Hammond, who uses various pianos around campus but especially prizes the occasional chance to play on various Steinway D’s, 9-foot grand pianos.

Hammond’s Yale years have also afforded a start in professional life. At the tail end of his sophomore year, the New York-based vocal Mirror Visions Ensemble found itself without a pianist as it prepared for a major recording project. One of Hammond’s Yale mentors, Richard Lalli, recommended him.

‘He’s a kid but I think he can do it,’” Hammond recalls Lalli saying.

Over two months, Hammond mastered an hour’s worth of music in time to record a video album with the group. That album, “Midnight Magic,” led to live performances in Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Scotland’s Isle of Arran, and elsewhere.

But, really, how does he fit it all in?

I eat all my meals in 15 minutes,” he said.

As for his interest in circus acrobatics — a tale for another day.

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