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Pianist von Oeyen brings familiar sounds of Grieg’s concerto to Wichita Symphony

Andrew von Oeyen, pianist
Andrew von Oeyen, pianist Courtesy photo

Pianist Andrew von Oeyen first learned to play Edvard Grieg’s “Piano Concerto” in his teens as a rising musical star in his native Los Angeles.

And even though he hasn’t performed it in about a year and a half, the 37-year-old said there’s no chance of losing his way.

“I have so much built-up mileage that it all comes back to my fingers very quickly,” said von Oeyen, who will play the piece next weekend with the Wichita Symphony Orchestra, directed by guest conductor Alastair Willis, a Grammy Award nominee.

Part of the familiarity the performer has with the piece, von Oeyen says, is how the concerto has ingrained itself into the musical landscape. The opening cadenza, which repeats itself several times in the first movement, is a familiar piano flourish from movies, television and commercials.

“What’s so appealing is the melodies, which are quickly recognizable and delightful,” he said in a phone interview from his home in Paris.

Despite its familiar tune, he said, there is a need to put each pianist’s fingerprint on the 1868 work.

“I think the biggest challenge for me, and pianists in general, is that because it’s so well-known and so frequently performed, is to find a way to keep it fresh and to find something original to say with the piece,” von Oeyen said.

Von Oeyen said that as both a performer and a listener, he loves the work.

“It’s a very balanced piece,” he said. “It’s balanced structurally, it’s balanced in terms of bravura and virtuosic playing and extroverted playing.”

He said it has “something for everyone.”

“There’s a feeling after playing the piece of a kind of journey you took the audience on,” von Oeyen said. “It’s a substantial piece. While not a Brahms concerto, it’s still a substantial work, emotionally and technically speaking.”

Von Oeyen said a series of events helped advance his career to the national level. At 16, he won a contest that gave him the first of several solo spots with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. After studying at the Juilliard School and Columbia University, he won the Gilmore Young Artist Award, which led to him landing his first professional agent, eventually propelling him into the national spotlight.

“It was not an overnight thing, ever,” he said. “They all contributed, and one thing leads to the next. One can never control how these things happened, but I was fortunate not to have that overnight success story that some people have, where one event does it and jump-starts a career.”

Given the choice, he said, he wouldn’t have wanted to become an overnight piano sensation.

“The problem is, most people are not ready for a career when it comes to them that quickly,” von Oeyen said.

Earlier this year, he released an album of works by Saint-Saens, Ravel and Gershwin, backed by the Prague Philharmonia.

Von Oeyen splits his time between homes in Paris and Los Angeles when not on the road, estimating he spends about three months a year in France.

He said living in Paris has both consciously and unconsciously informed his music.

“My living here has put me in touch with the culture in a much more intimate way, and in that regard I understand the culture, everything about French composers of the 20th century, because I live two blocks away from where Ravel lived,” von Oeyen said.

“I know people who knew some of these composers,” he added. “Like all things in life, the more you read, the more you know, the more you experience. It just brings you closer to the world of the composer. The more you play their music, the more you understand.”

VON OEYEN PLAYS GRIEG

When: 8 p.m. Saturday, March 11, and 3 p.m. Sunday, March 12

Where: Century II Concert Hall, 225 W. Douglas

What: Pianist Andrew von Oeyen joins guest conductor Alastair Willis for the Grieg “Piano Concerto”; the program also includes Diamond’s “Rounds” and Dvorak’s “Symphony No. 8.”

Admission: $20 to $65

Information: Tickets are available at www.wichitasymphony.org, by phone at 316-267-7658 or in person at the symphony box office inside Century II. Box office hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.

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