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French pianist likes to connect

French pianist Philippe Bianconi's playing has been described as “always close to the soul of the music, filling the space with poetry and life.”

Published: Friday, February 14, 2014 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, February 13, 2014 at 1:30 p.m.

With its rumbling timpani and crashing piano chords, the opening of Edvard Grieg's Piano Concerto is so recognizable, it's almost become part of the collective unconscious.

Facts

IN CONCERT

What: Music Director Bruno Ferrandis leads the Santa Rosa Symphony in the “Sons of the Fjord” program, with French pianist Philippe Bianconi.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday and 8 p.m. Monday. Discovery Rehearsal is at 2 p.m. Saturday
Where: Weill Hall, Green Music Center, Sonoma State University (corner of Petaluma Hill Road and Rohnert park Expressway), Rohnert Park.
Tickets: $20 - $80. Discovery Open Rehearsal: $15 adults, $10 youth.
To reserve: 546-8742 or http://santarosasymphony.com

Portions of the work have popped up on top-10 radio (Kokomo's pop hit “Asia Minor” in 1961), TV shows (David Lynch's “Twin Peaks” in the 1980s) and the big screen (Adrian Lyne's film “Lolita” 1997), among many other places.

Oddly enough, you don't hear it very often on the concert stage these days.

“In my younger days, I was asked to play it all the time,” said pianist Philippe Bianconi. “In the last 10 or 15 years, it hasn't been played that often. Maybe because people got tired of it?”

In his second appearance with the Santa Rosa Symphony since 2008, Bianconi will perform the concerto this weekend with his old friend, Music Director Bruno Ferrandis, as part of a “Sons of the Fjord” program showcasing music of the Northern European midnight sun.

The concerts will kick off with a short work by the young Norwegian composer Orjan Matre, “Resurgence for Orchestra,” which Ferrandis describes as “beautiful and esoteric.”

The piece explores the link between sound and space, with musicians placed at various locations in the hall.

Rounding out the Northern theme will be Jean Sibelius' Symphony No. 2 in D Major, which evokes the icy expanses of Norway with gentle melodies and restless rhythms. It is the composer's most famous symphony.

Like Ferrandis, Bianconi grew up in Nice, France, with parents of Italian heritage. The two musicians, who both live in Paris now, attended the Conservatory of Nice together.

“Bruno took piano lessons, and at some point, we had the same piano teacher,” Bianconi recalled. “At a very young age, he (Bruno) was already very intellectual and cultured.”

Bianconi went on to study with pianist Gaby Casadesus in Paris, winning the Casadesus International Competition in Cleveland and the Jeunesses Musicales International Competition in Belgrade, Serbia.

But it was the 7th Cliburn International Piano Competition in 1985, where he won the silver medal, that truly launched his career.

“That really got me started in this country,” he said. “The U.S. is the country where I spend the most time, outside of France.”

Bianconi is comfortable playing music of all eras, from Mozart and Brahms to Debussy and Bartok.

“I think it's very challenging and exciting to be able to go from one style to another,” he said. “I don't know if I can do justice to all of it, but I just love doing it.”

However, he feels closest to the Romantic repertoire and composers like Rachmaninoff and Schumann.

“When I play, I try to do justice to the composer and the piece,” he said. “And I do it with my own means — my sensitivity and my personality.”

While performing, the pianist strives to communicate and share the work's emotions with the audience.

In the Grieg concerto, which was written in the heart of the Romantic era, those emotions offer stark contrasts.

“I want to share with the audience the grandeur of the piece,” he said. “There's the dark side of the Northern European psyche, and then there's this beautiful, lyrical second theme that is so warm.”

In the second movement, the orchestra plays the melody while the piano fills in with grace notes, arpeggios and other musical filigree.

“I'm a little bit jealous of the orchestra then,” he said.

“There is this deep nostalgia in the theme played by the orchestra, and it's so beautiful.”

In the finale, the energetic melodies imitate the foot-pounding rhythms of Norwegian folk dance.

“There are so many contrasts in this concerto,” he added. “That's what I'm trying to bring out.”

Bianconi was recently named director of the American Conservatory in Fontainebleau, a summer school founded in 1921 to introduce the best American music students to the musical traditions of France.

Through the years, the faculty has included such well-known talents as Maurice Ravel and Leonard Bernstein. When its longtime director, composer Nadia Boulanger, died in 1979, however, the institution went through dire financial straits.

“Although it's not what it was, it's doing pretty well now,” Bianconi said. “We have a good faculty.”

(You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com.)

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