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Pianist says performing with MSO is like 'going back to old friends'

Pianist says performing with MSO is like 'going back to old friends'

Nineteenth-century Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg might have been feeling like a hotshot. Inspired by the likes of Robert Schumann and Franz Liszt, Grieg modeled the works of these artists in his compositions. Then in 1870, he met Liszt, who was older and renowned.

“The story is that Liszt met Grieg, the young lad. Grieg showed him his (piano concerto) manuscript hot off the press. Grieg thought it was this amazing thing. Liszt proceeded in front of people to read it at sight,” pianist Andrew Staupe said.

Grieg later wrote that he felt embarrassed and “laughed like an idiot.” Liszt, however, was a gracious mentor and supported and encouraged Grieg in his career.

Staupe, a celebrated American pianist who hails from Minneapolis, Minn., will perform Grieg’s “Piano Concerto in A Minor” with the Maryland Symphony Orchestra at The Romantics concert on Saturday, Feb. 8 and Sunday, Feb. 9 at The Maryland Theatre.

A Romantic era concerto with a Norwegian flair

Grieg’s piece is widely regarded as a staple of 19th century Romanticism and as one of the most enchanting and popular piano concerto ever written, exhibiting the influence of Schumann and Liszt, as well as a taste of Norwegian folk melodies.

Staupe said Liszt’s ability to play the concerto brilliantly at first sight in no way diminishes the value of the piece.

“I think that has more to do with Liszt’s ability as a concert pianist than weakness of the concerto,” he said.

Staupe, who has played at Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, the Library of Congress, and with symphony orchestras throughout the world, and who serves as assistant professor of Piano at the University of Houston in Texas, spoke with a What’s NXT reporter from his Houston home.

He said Grieg’s piano concerto, which he wrote at age 24, reflects Schumann’s piano concerto in a number of ways, including that it was written in the same key.

“It starts with a quick, downward crash in chords down the keyboard,” he said, “and both pieces sort of have a chamber music quality in places. There are lots of orchestral solos but not overt bravura all the time.”

Like many composers, Grieg revised his concerto throughout his life.

“Some of Liszt’s suggestions were included in the early revisions. It ultimately went through about 20 revisions, through hours and years of toil,” Staupe said.

Staupe has known of the Grieg concerto since he started taking piano lessons around the age of 10 or 11. He learned it years ago and has played it twice in concert.

Compared with other concertos, he said, “it’s not really known as a warhorse.”

“It’s not fiendishly difficult at all. It’s got its challenges, but I have a lot of experience with it already. It will feel natural, like coming back to an old friend, a good friend,” he said.

Though Grieg labored over the piece for years, it quickly was established as a seminal piano concerto.

“Within a year or two, it got its permanent place in history. Most listeners will know what it is. Even in the first four notes, everyone knows it – ‘ba ba ba BUM!’” Staupe sang.

The concerto is quintessentially Romantic in terms of melodies, octaves and cadenzas showcasing virtuosity, but it is unique in its Norwegian sound.

“There are all of these Romantic elements and then there is this Norwegian folk background that makes it unique as part of the concerto canon,” Staupe said.

Much classical music from the time of Bach through Beethoven, roughly the 1700s through the early 1800s, was Austrian and Germanic in style.

“Here comes Grieg from Norway. He wrote this in Denmark and it embodies something you would expect from Beethoven or Schumann, but then it’s interesting to hear this Norwegian imposter that has elements of Romanticism that no other mainstream piano concerto has,” Staupe said.

A program highlighting 'the different aspects of Romanticism'

Romanticism is characterized by emotion, sweeping gestures, gorgeous melodies, raw passion and personal expression, and the related concept of romantic love seems to influence orchestral programming, Staupe said. Many pianists perform Grieg’s concerto during February.

“It’s kind of funny,” Staupe said. “Programming has its sort of homogenous flow through orchestras. Certain times of the year, certain repertoire comes about. Right before Christmas, you’ll hear Beethoven’s ‘Ninth’ and ‘The Nutcracker.’ I never thought of it that way but maybe (the popularity of Grieg’s concerto in February) is because of Valentine’s Day.”

Also included in The Romantics concert will be Felix Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides Overture” and Ruth Gipps’ “Song for Orchestra,” with Schumann’s “Symphony No. 2” concluding the program.

Mendelssohn’s piece highlights imagery, which is another component of Romanticism. It brings to mind the Hebrides islands off the coast of Scotland and adds a “layer of connectivity,” Staupe said.

“The ‘Overture’ sounds like Mendelssohn but it also sounds like the British Hebrides, the Scottish Highlands,” he said. “This program carefully highlights the different aspects of Romanticism.”

During the overture, Staupe said he will be backstage preparing for his performance, “getting in the zone.”

“I wish I could hear the whole concert,” he said. “The Maryland Symphony Orchestra is amazing. Everyone in Hagerstown should be going there for the concert.”

Staupe said he has played with top orchestras and “the Maryland orchestra holds its own with anybody. It’s a super amazing gift, the quality of that symphony orchestra in Hagerstown.”

He played with the MSO for the Romantic Rachmaninoff concert celebrating Valentine’s Day in 2017.

“I want to stress how excited I am to come back. Sometimes you don’t get a reengagement for one reason or another,” he said. “I am deeply honored that Elizabeth (Schulze) brought me back.”

When a guest artist has a good rapport with the conductor and the orchestra, he said, “it’s like going back to old friends.”

“Like going back to a piece, it’s a friendship. It makes it more personal and more rewarding onstage, and by proxy, the audience will hear that rapport. The audience can hear if you see eye to eye with the conductor and the orchestra. There will be smiles,” Staupe said. “That synergy of having old friends come back together and make music — that is why we do what we do.”

Top photo: American pianist Andrew Staupe will perform Edvard Grieg’s “Piano Concerto in A Minor” with the Maryland Symphony Orchestra during The Romantics concert. (Submitted photo)

If you go ...

WHAT: Maryland Symphony Orchestra's The Romantics concert featuring pianist Andrew Staupe
WHEN: Saturday, Feb. 8 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 9 at 3 p.m.
WHERE: The Maryland Theatre, 21 S. Potomac St., Hagerstown
COST: Tickets cost $14 to $74. K-12 students are eligible to attend The Romantics for free in seating sections priced $34 or lower. Up to two free student tickets allowed per paid adult. Classical concerts not recommended for children younger than five.
CONTACT: Visit marylandsymphony.org or mdtheatre.org online or call 301-790-2000. Contact box office directly for student tickets.

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