Drew Petersen had been playing professionally for eight years when he first tackled Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 at the age of 13.
It might not have seemed extraordinary to him at the time. After all, this achievement was par for the course for the precocious musician. He will be performing this work again on Nov. 11 with the Carmel Symphony Orchestra.
Petersen, now 23, was presented at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall at age five. At age nine, he performed a solo recital at Steinway Hall in Manhattan for the company’s 150th Anniversary. Since then he’s been performing nationwide and taking top honors at five major piano competitions.
But his performance schedule didn’t put a damper on his education. He received a B.A. in Liberal Arts from Harvard at age 19. And he completed his undergraduate musical studies at Julliard, where he was recently accepted into the Artist Diploma Program.
Petersen’s resumé is certainly spectacular — he is the winner of the 2017 American Pianists Association Classical Award, after all — but he’s not flashy in his approach to the piano. He’s more interested in, as he says, “opening a conversation with an audience,” than impressing with virtuosity.
“I want to make sure what I’m playing is clear,” he says. “I want to communicate what does make sense, regardless of an audience member’s familiarity with a piece.”
Petersen has an intimate familiarity with Chopin’s Piano Concerto #1.
“I learned Chopin as a kid growing up in New Jersey,” he says. “It has stuck with me. Chopin wrote [the Piano Concerto #1] when he was 20 — almost twice my age at the time I began to study the work.”
Petersen recalls asking himself, while growing up, what he would accomplish by the age of 20.
“Now, I’m three years older than he was,” he says. “It’s a challenge to come back and discover more.”
Although he takes pleasure in exploring the brilliant simplicity of Chopin’s arrangements, as well as his complex harmonies, there’s a limit to the explorations he can embark on during performance mode.
“Discovery has to stop so you can play,” he says.
But Chopin isn’t all that’s been on his plate recently. He’s supplementing the simplicity of Chopin — the 19th century Polish composer once said that simplicity is the crowning achievement of life — with the mind-bending complexity of Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. (On Oct. 28 he performed Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 2 with the Anderson Symphony Orchestra.)
Immediately after performing at the Palladium in Carmel, he’s set to appear with the Tucson Symphony Orchestra in Tucson.
Time and energy management are part of Petersen’s daily routine now, as he builds up a performance schedule world-wide, he develops repertoire, plays concerts and engages with media and patrons.
But Petersen says he can’t think of any other way of life.
“I like doing concertos with orchestras,” he says. “It’s 40 minutes with support and companionship with other players; all of us sharing in this experience with an audience.”
Orchestra, pianist, conductor and audience all blend together for Petersen, creating an experience in live time.
“Of course, the more dimensions, the more considerations you have to deal with, and the chemistry has to work with all of the diverse people,” says Petersen. “It’s a very different world from solo concerts where you are alone with the piano and an audience for an hour and a half, and where the performer is fully responsible for creating the program.”
And then there’s his new gig on Indy’s Southside. As the winner of the Christel DeHaan Fellowship in April; he is Artist-in-Residence through the 2018-2019 school year at the University of Indianapolis.
Petersen’s Sept. 25, 2017 Fellowship-launching program at UIndy featured American composers, some familiar, some not so much: Barber, Carter, Griffes, Ives and Judith Zaimont.
He wasn’t exactly playing it safe.
“You can sense when the audience gets on board, feeling the narrative, seeing how classical, jazz, blues, country, gospel all fit together,” he says.
“It’s not the usual case to choose an unusual repertoire,” says Petersen. “But this was my first recital as a resident artist and teacher, so part of the teaching thing came through. Why not do an unusual mix of gems of American music most of us don’t know?”