Renowned virtuoso pianist Joel Fan returns to Helena Saturday, Jan. 25, for his second concert with the Helena Symphony, “Beethoven and the Mighty Piano” at the Helena Civic Center.
And, better news yet, he will be performing two major works: Karol Szymanowki’s Symphony No. 4 for Piano and Orchestra and Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 , during the second half of the program.
The concert opens at 7:30 p.m. with the orchestra performing Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4.
“It’s very rare that a soloist can do two monumental works,” conductor Allan R. Scott said of Saturday’s program. “It’s a gift to have someone who performs with all the great orchestras in the world ….and works with Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble” to perform here. “He’s a very well recognized artist — very respected.”
“I must say how excited I am to be coming back to Helena to perform these amazing, beautiful works,” Fan said in an IR phone interview from New York City.
“The Liszt concerto is really one of the classic war horses of the literature. It’s a really — what I would call a compact unified work. He was a true innovator when it came to the musical form. He wanted the entire piece to be really organic….It goes together in one stream of consciousness. There’s a lot of fireworks to the piano — in the typical Lisztian way. The Liszt is written as a true piano showpiece.”
The piece by Szymanowski, a Polish composer, is less well known.
“One of the themes of my career has been putting the traditional with the rare,” Fan said. “This is why it’s so nice to do it on an orchestral program. The last one is like Prokofiev — it is very rhythmic and a lot of fun.”
Fan is playing the two works back to back and invites the audience to listen to how the piano is treated by the two different composers.
“It’s an unusual concert for a pianist,” he admits, “to be doing two different concertos on the same half - is pretty unusual.”
As to the challenges? “I wouldn’t call them challenges … it’s all about the spontaneity in the moment of creation — it’s thrilling and exciting. I think of it as an opportunity.”
Fan is looking forward to playing with conductor Scott, he said. “I think Allan is a masterful conductor. Organized. Great technique. Extremely, extremely musically insightful. I’m really excited to be working with him again.”
Shortly after Helena, Fan travels to Bogotá, Colombia, to perform. And this past season he completed a massive music tour in China.
Fan credits his parents for his passion for music. “They were big music lovers and had really great taste in music. It was really wonderful to grow up listening to (Glenn) Gould, (Vladimir) Horowitz …., all these great pianists. They really loved this music — that was their influence.
Fan, who started playing piano at age 5, made his performing debut with the New York Philharmonic at age 11.
Throughout his career, he’s earned accolades from reviewers across the country.
“Mr. Fan has a powerful touch and a big sound… his playing was the picture of textured clarity… with the sparkle and rhythmic suppleness of a jazz improviser,” wrote the New York Times.
“Fan plays beautifully, turning all the spice and pizzazz into pure pleasure,” wrote The Arizona Republic.
Scott calls the Liszt piano concerto “a powerhouse.”
Known as an outstanding pianist, Liszt was the “rock star” of his day. Scott compares his popularity at that time to that of Elvis Presley and the Beatles. Over the course of his career, hundreds of thousands came to hear him play. Known for his enormous sound, “he probably broke every piano he played.
“You’ll see why (he was such a star), there’s such flair and drama to this music,” said Scott. “He puts his entire personality into his work.”
While the Liszt concerto may be more standard repertoire, the Szymanowski work is sort of a mixture of Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich, Scott said. “Even though he’s Polish, he very much has this Russian sound. It’s very rich, very lush and very rhythmic.”
“Despite that he was having a pretty miserable life. This piece doesn’t show that,” Scott said of the work that he describes as having a “bright, optimistic and hopeful sound.”
He was gay during a time there was little to no social acceptance of gay people. He was also suffering from tuberculosis and wrote this work to pay for his medical treatments.
The “pleasant, lovely and lyrical” work has an almost primal ending with the feel of “Carmina Burana,” Scott said.
Like Szymanowski, Beethoven was also suffering at the time he composed Symphony No. 4, yet he too wrote an incredibly joyous work, Scott said. “They were both going through difficult times and their work shows none of that.”
Although Beethoven had gone almost totally deaf, Scott said, “It’s completely optimistic and wonderful.
“This is a side (of Beethoven) we don’t see very often,” he said. “He’s totally, completely in love. His second movement is one of the greatest love letters he ever wrote. It is gorgeous.”
Yet the symphony has Beethoven’s distinctive “fire” and “bloodiness” at the end. While some see this piece as a “polite” work by Beethoven, Scott disagrees. Although it has a lighthearted, humorous and fun feel to the music, it also has raw guttural energy.
Scott calls Saturday’s concert a real treat for anyone who ever touched piano keys.
“Half the audience should be pianists,” he predicted, particularly since music teachers can give their students free tickets to the concert.
“It features one masterpiece few pianists can play and one masterpiece that few know about. They are two very different works and are very powerful.
“It’s an exciting concert. That’s why it’s ‘Beethoven and the Mighty Piano.’ You will get to see an all-star pianist, to see the versatility of what the composers can do and what someone like Joel Fan can do. He’s a world class artist.”