Friday morning a small but enthusiastic audience at Kleinhans Music Hall heard the first of two performances in this weekend’s “Majestic Mendelssohn” concert. A childhood prodigy himself, that Mendelssohn, he composed 14 string symphonies by the time he was 14, the world-renowned “String Octet” when he was 16, and the Overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” when he was only 17.
So, when pianist Drew Peterson (who graduated from Harvard at age 19) walked on stage with Buffalo-born conductor William Eddins (who completed his degree in piano performance at the Eastman School of Music at age 18, one of the youngest graduates in the institution’s history) to perform Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1, you might have wondered at the preponderance of prodigious talent.
If you have followed the early careers of many prodigies who were pushed too hard only to see them flame out early on, then you might know that one truly exceptional aspect of the concert was that, through careful artistic handling when they were young, all three – Petersen, Eddins, and Mendelssohn – came out on the other side with fully-fledged careers and are still performing and being performed today. (All three are/were composers as well as being exceptional pianists.)
I must say when pianist Drew Petersen first walked on stage over to the Steinway, his gait reminded me of two “genius” characters on television: “Sheldon Cooper” as acted by Jim Parsons on “The Big Bang Theory” and “Dr. Shaun Murphy” as acted by Freddie Highmore on “The Good Doctor.” He, like those exceptionally bright characters, appeared to be in his own world. But then, as internet clickbait so often says, “You won’t believe what happened next!”
Drew Peterson plays EVERY note and lets the music speak for itself.
Some guest artists play a lot of notes, but let you know that they are “feeling” the music. Drew Peterson plays EVERY note and lets the music speak for itself. He does feel the music, as Lukas Foss explains in the video below, and to my ear he is a master of “rubato.” That’s when an artist pauses for a nano-second delay before playing the next note as our hearts swell with anticipation. When done well, and Petersen has been doing it since forever, it is one of the most exciting things a soloist can do.
I was so intrigued by Petersen that I watched the 20-minute documentary about him called “just normal” by Kim Snyder which follows 11-year-old Drew preparing to play Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 with Lukas Foss conducting. In the doc, Foss (BPO Music Director from 1963 to 1970) says “He’s not just a child prodigy; he’s a real musician” and you can hear that in his performance.
We also hear in the doc from Elanor Sage Leonard, President and Founder of The Music Festival of the Hamptons, where Petersen and Foss performed Mozart’s (hey! yet ANOTHER prodigy) Piano Concerto No. 21. She said ”It’s a particular concern when one deals with a prodigy and a rare talent like this that it doesn’t get ruined, really ruined. The chances of that happening are great.”
That is true. Drew is also a “From the Top alum” having appeared on that radio show in 2006. You can hear his interview with (then) host Chris O’Riley (at about 14 minutes in) followed by a performance here and you can enjoy meeting other prodigies weekly on the radio station WNED Classical (94.5 FM or stream WNED.org/classical) Saturday nights at 7:00. The organization surrounding “From the Top” is legendary in its careful, slow nurturing of young talent, rather like the Sphynx organization, which sends a young performer to Buffalo annually..
The Mendelssohn Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor (a favorite key of Mozart, by the way) is, in my opinion, under-scheduled (last heard at Kleinhans in 1998). Mendelssohn’s contemporaries were the great prodigies Franz Liszt and Frederic Chopin, both of whom knew their way around a keyboard (and then some!) and if you like those two composers, you’ll like this piano concerto. Be aware of one thing. Mendelssohn goes seamlessly from the first movement to the second (a favorite trick of his) so be ready for that.
After a standing ovation and three curtain calls Petersen graced the Friday morning audience with an encore, Chopin’s Etude in A-flat, Opus 10 Number 10. Given that Mendelssohn (born 1809) and Chopin (born 1810) both, to my ear, have a similar light but lightning fast touch to them, it was an apt choice. And, of course, on the BPO’s Steinway grand in that hall, beloved of pianist Van Cliburn for the all-wood acoustics, it was, to use an overworked term, magical. Or, as Petersen is quoted as saying: “When the sound of a Steinway can be anything I imagine it to be… this is Steinway’s craft. But when the sound of a Steinway transcends my imagination… that is Steinway’s magic.”
The concert opened (and will open again tonight at 7:30 pm) with African-American composer Jonathan Bailey Holland’s “Motor City Remix” – a high-energy work celebrating the music of Detroit, which makes excellent use of the percussion section (and ends sounding a lot like the movie theme song “Shaft.”)
After intermission, the big work was the 40-minute Symphony No. 3 “The Scottish” by Mendelssohn, a moody, brooding work that made excellent use of the BPO winds. As I’ve said so often, as a classical music host on WNED Classical I’ve played this on the radio many times, but there’s nothing like a live performance in Kleinhans to let you hear things that you just can’t take in through your earbuds. What did I hear “new” this time?
I’ve mentioned Mendelssohn’s (1809) contemporaries Franz Liszt and Frederic Chopin, but at this concert, I swear the music sounded like Verdi (born 1814, just four years after Mendelssohn). The opening movement of the Scottish symphony could have been the opening to a number of those dark, brooding Verdi operas. Apart from a comic “singspiel” Mendelssohn never wrote operas. Too bad because he wrote a number of songs and two great oratorios. But, alas, no opera.
So, for a complete concert experience, I highly recommend tonight’s concert tonight, April 9, at 7:30 pm at Kleinhans Music Hall at “3 Symphony Circle” Buffalo, 14201 where Porter Avenue, Richmond Avenue, North Street and Wadsworth meet at a traffic circle. Visit www.bpo.org or call 716-885-5000. Runtime: 2 hours with one intermission (full-service bar across the lobby in the Mary Seaton Room).