Discussing Prokofiev Concerti with Drew Petersen

Drew Petersen won the 2017 American Pianists Awards after a brilliant season of music that concluded with his performance of Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. He returns to Indianapolis in July 2018 to join the orchestra at their summer home, the amphitheater at Conner Prairie, for Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3. This performance prompted a number of discussion points: 2017 versus 2018; two versus three; indoor versus outdoor. With these thoughts in mind, American Pianists Association CEO and Artistic Director Joel Harrison joined Drew first by video chat then by telephone to discuss.

Slow internet connectivity, unfortunately, made the video chat brief:

The pair reconvened on the telephone shortly after. 

JOEL HARRISON Hi Drew, this is Joel again

 DREW PETERSEN Okay this is much better!

JOEL So I understand you are living in the Hamptons full time this summer?

DREW Exactly. I go back home to New Jersey occasionally. This time of the year it is hot in New York and New Jersey, and when I have an extended period when I don’t have to be in New York, I come here. My parents are here. My brother is here working as a lifeguard. It is great!

JOEL It has been a while since you have been in Indianapolis. This is one of the longest segments that we have not seen Drew in Indianapolis.

DREW I know! I was thinking about that recently! This winter especially, I was coming so often and having so much fun—it was like once, twice a month. Now it’s been about two months since I was last in town for the Christ Church Cathedral recital. Now I get to do something with orchestra!

JOEL It’s pretty exciting! We are well aware of your fabulous performance of Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra back during the competition, and now you are coming back and playing Prokofiev's Concerto No. 3 with the ISO on July 20 and 21. Can you tell us a little about your feelings about those two concerti—what is similar, what is different, what are the challenges, what’s unique to one over the other.

DREW Right! I was really thinking about these two concerti—especially because I get to do both with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, which is amazing within almost a calendar year of each other. Prokofiev is really a genius in many many ways. He boggles my mind; he amazes all of us who love any music. I can’t really think of two more different works in many ways. The contrast between these two concertos is just so extreme. It is one thing to say I am very fortunate I get to play two major works by Prokofiev for piano and orchestra. Many times when one plays works by the same composer one notices many similarities and can base aspects of interpretation of one work on aspects of another work. That is certainly true in this case, but it is amazing in how different they are in terms of approach and emotional content. The second concerto is in many ways our pianists’ one expressionistic concerto. It is not really the same harmonic language, but the emotional content is so extreme, so very dissonant. I think it’s quite a romantic piece, but romantic stretched to the point of almost cataclysmic collapse.

The third concerto is overwhelming in its own way. I think that if the second is expressionistic, the third is modernist in the sense it is futuristic—futurism in the sense of high velocity, lots and lots of color, and incredible energy to the point of mania. The piece has a certain kind of momentum to it, even the slower sections. There is always some sort of rhythmic pulse that keeps moving everything forward. It goes by so fast—it is a 30-minute piece, but it feels like you are in and out in five minutes.

JOEL I understand there is a recording by Prokofiev himself. By any chance, have you heard that?

DREW I have heard it, and it is interesting. It is a little bit more coloristic, and, to me, sounds a little more impressionistic than many pianists play it today.

It is hard to tell because the recording quality is not very good. It is hard to say how it was actually performed. It is interesting to hear composers perform their own work.

I try not to be too influenced by that. Who knows if that was the day Prokofiev wanted it done that way. I don’t like to limit myself.

JOEL I think that’s a pretty good idea. We can always glean a lot by hearing a composer perform his or her own works, but often times external voices can have insights that even the composer did not have.

DREW Right, of course. And a piece like this can have so many voices!

JOEL So there are five piano concertos by Prokofiev. I know you play No. 2 and No. 3. Have you had a chance to you play No. 1 and No. 5? I presume you don’t play No. 4, since it is left hand alone.

DREW Yes, left hand alone repertoire is very interesting. I actually love the Ravel concerto for left hand alone, but the Prokofiev I don’t really know well at all. No. 5 I have heard. It is an amazing piece. It is underrated and certainly under performed, but I’ve never performed it. No. 1 I learned as a student but have never done with orchestra—that’s a really fun concerto.

JOEL I have never heard No. 5 performed outside of a series where they were going through all five Prokofiev concerti. I’ve never actually heard a live performance of No. 4.

As you are aware, this is an outdoor concert which brings a number of challenges. One would be the weather. Two: bugs. Three is an acoustical issue—while there is a big shell you are playing under, it is not like playing in Hilbert Circle Theatre. The piano is being mic'd to fill up the entire park. Do you have any thoughts about that or concerns?

Symphony on the Prairie
The Amphitheater at Conner Prairie

DREW Oh yes! Acoustics are a concern no matter where I perform. I always want to make sure what I am hearing translates into what the audience hears in a flattering way. So no matter what, I try to make sure that works. As a performing artist now touring all kinds of spaces—indoor spaces generally—I now have a sense how things will sound. However in such an open space—literally open air—its going to be very difficult to really get a sense of what I will sound like from far away. I will, if you do not mind, enlist your help to be out in the audience and give me a little feedback. I do this quite frequently. It is more helpful to have people whose ears I can trust to give me some sense of what is going on.

JOEL Now you have a number of other performances coming up soon. You have a solo recital in New York, then Ravinia in September and other concertos coming up quickly in terms of the concert season. Tell us about the other concertos you are playing toward the end of the summer and into the fall.

DREW Right! So the two big ones I’m performing in September really kick off the 18-19 season. I’m playing Gershwin’s Concerto in F with the Columbus Philharmonic. I’m really looking forward to that. I’ve been playing "Rhapsody in Blue" a lot over the past year. I find it to be one of the most popular concertos people request, and I really enjoy Gershwin’s art. There is some crossover between Gershwin and Prokofiev. There is some of Prokofiev No. 3 that reminds me of Gershwin a little bit. You know that Roaring Twenties, early 20th century jazz-inflected aesthetic. Gershwin’s Concerto in F is perhaps jazz cast more in a classical mold, than say "Rhapsody in Blue." I think the piece has a lot of energy, a lot of color. It is very soulful and explores more of Gershwin’s lyrical side than "Rhapsody in Blue" does.

Then, speaking of lyrical pieces, I get to play one of the most lyrical concertos: Tchaikovsky's First Concerto. That is with the Phoenix Symphony at the end of September. As I’m working through this piece all I can think of is lyricism and ballet. There are all these beautiful shapes in the piano part. It is amazing how this piece fits together and how magnificent it is!

JOEL Well you certainly have an exciting 6-8 weeks ahead of you! That is definitely keeping you at the keyboard while you prepare for this.

DREW Yes, but it is quite rewarding for me. These are masterpieces—it does not get much better than this!

JOEL Thank you, Drew, it is great to chat. We look forward to having you perform with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra at Conner Prairie.

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Drew Petersen performing Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 16 with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. April 7, 2017 at the American Pianists Awards Gala Finals:

 

 

 

 

 

 

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