Pianist Drew Petersen on performing in the Czech Republic and the American Spring

Joel Harrison, Drew Petersen, photo: Jan Velinger

Drew Petersen is a prodigious pianist who is the winner of this year’s American Pianists Award. He is pursuing a Masters at the Juilliard School of Music and recently completed a tour of the Czech Republic as part of the American Spring music festival. He and the president of APA, Joel Harrison, stopped by Czech Radio as the concert tour wrapped up, to discuss the American Spring and much more.

Joel Harrison, Drew Petersen, photo: Jan Velinger
I began by asking Drew about what he played at some of the different venues.

DP: “All of the performances were solo recitals across the Czech Republic: so there was one in Prague and the others were also very interesting historical and cultural sites including Nelahozeves chateau, there was a synagogue in Dobříš which had been turned into an art centre. There was a smaller venue, a church, in Písek, and we went as far as the Czech and Slovak border, so a big tour of the country.”

I’m impressed: this is your first time in the Czech Republic but you have the pronunciation of the names down perfectly!

DP: “I am trying. It’s a tough language, certainly very different with other European languages I am more familiar with.”

Whose work did you perform?

DP: “I like work by a variety of classical composers, ranging from Beethoven all the way to 20th century pieces by Barber and Gershwin. And a longer ‘stop’ at Chopin, a ‘good friend’ of mine. I love his music very much.”

I was listening to an interview you did this year with WQXR with Robert Sherman and there you performed Beethoven, some Ravel, so I was wondering if you have a composer you rank above the rest, if Chopin is that?

DP: “I don’t know if I would like to choose just one although I certainly like 19th century Romantic period music a lot but then I also like 20th century American music too. I do a little bit of everything and the most exciting thing for me is that there is so much variety. The fact that I can take advantage of this variety and the fact that things can be kept fresh is very nice.”

To come back to the American Spring concert series: what did you think of the audiences as well as the acoustics?

“In the American Spring, I performed Beethoven all the way to 20th century pieces by Barber and Gershwin.”

DP: “The audiences were very warm and very welcoming and enthusiastic. Many people, even those who were less comfortable speaking English, understood me, so I was able to talk and build a rapport and introduce maybe an encore or two and everyone understood and were able to follow.

“As for acoustics, the venues, even if they were grand buildings, the rooms were often much smaller. At Nelahozeves, the recital was jam-packed and what that does is change the sound. It’s something you have to remember because it can be different from when you warmed up. If there are a lot of open walls without carpeting or drapery or anything, people can really suck up a lot of the sound and change it. Playing at all these kinds of different venues and having to adjust to different circumstances even between rehearsals can be a challenge.”

In April, you won The American Pianists Awards, run by APA. We have Joel Harrison, CEO and president of APA, with us as well. Joel, what sets this award apart?

JH: “It is a different kind of competition within the competition world. We might be described as a boutique competition, it is highly individualized. There are several unique aspects: one, you must be an American citizen, two, you have to be between the age of 18 and 30 and three, you have to be nominated. This is not something you can apply for. That adds a whole other level.

“Once you are nominated, there are then several parts: there is a preliminary listening of nominee recordings by the five chosen finalists, there is a media interview with each, we invite each to Indianapolis, Indiana, where they spend about a week with us. During that time, they do a concerto with a chamber orchestra, a solo recital, a three-day residency with a high school and perform with them and also do some other outreach concerts which brings very high quality performances to audiences, so the whole thing takes places over several months.

Joel Harrison, Drew Petersen, photo: Jan Velinger
“Then we invite the finalists back and they perform for us with a professional quartet and commission a new work for solo piano, which this year was played by all five candidates and there are concertos with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. At the end of all this and more, the winner is announced and receives one hundred thousand dollars and the designation of artist in residence at the University of Indianapolis, a positon they will hold for two years. And of course this year it is Drew.”

And that position begins in September…

DP: “Yes.”

That is a whirlwind of activity and it sound exciting on so many levels: was there room for nerves?

DP: “A little bit. Although I see it more as excitement than nerves: whether I am in a competition or a concert series or just practicing, I always want to play at the best possible level. Each situation offers different variables and different challenges which you have to meet, so I feel I have be very aware of my surroundings and what is expected of me and what my priorities are in any given situation. For me it is more about self-reflection than nerves.”

You have been playing for a long time, you began as a child as is often the case, so as a professional, you know how to handle the curveballs which come your way, to use a sports analogy…

DP: “Right. And there are many times things won’t go your way, you can be playing on a piano which you are less used to or which simply might not be good and sometimes these curveballs provides a little extra push and you try something which you normally couldn’t. So even there, there are possibilities and it is important to see them as an opportunity – you try to take advantage of the situation. If nothing else, the unexpected keeps thing interesting and keeps you on your toes.”

If we stay with the awards for a moment, a question for Joel: Is it generally true for anyone studying music, do they basically reach a fork in the road whether to go with classical music or jazz? Because I know that the APA supports both.

JH: “Correct. I would say to some extent, yes. We certainly have the history of supporting both: certainly we have had jazz pianists who cross over, we had one who played very often here…”

“Often in music, the unexpected keeps thing interesting and keeps you on your toes.”

Dan Tepfer.

JH: “Yes. He is a great example of that. He released a recording some time back of the Goldberg Variations but which included his own improvised interpretations of Bach’s music.”

Drew, besides piano, I read that at one point competed as a swimmer…

DP: “That was another important part of my life. In New York we have a pretty long winter, so I used to do a lot of swimming and competing in indoor pools. But the chlorine and the whole atmosphere, I think, is not all that healthy… I was a healthy kid and at one point I caught pneumonia so that was a little unusual. But last summer I joined an open water swimming group and we would swim a couple times a week and that was great. Swimming is actually a great sport for piano because it strengthens your core. You stretch and strengthen your back which makes it easier to practice hours per day and recital after recital. Swimming is all about efficiency, not unlike piano, as well.”

There is a debut album in the works?

“Yes there is. It will be on the Steinway and Sons label. The repertoire has not been finalized yet but I hope to also include some American music. Recording has been scheduled for October and after that it will be at least six months and likely more before it goes to release.”