Pianist calls Brahms concerto 'a monster' and 'a masterpiece'

Mike Dunham
Photo by Dion Ogust

In October 1988 the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra played its first concert in the new Alaska Center for the Performing Arts. The highlight of the program was Johannes Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major with soloist Emanuel Ax, not yet 50 at the time, but even then considered an established veteran in the classical virtuoso world.

On Saturday, in celebration of the center's 25th anniversary, the symphony will again present the big Brahms concerto. This time the soloist will be a fairly new arrival on the scene, Ilya Yakushev, an up-and-comer who's been wowing critics and audiences since he turned pro in 2006.

"My manager is keeping me busy," he said by phone early this month, en route to catch a plane to Des Moines, Iowa, where he was scheduled to play the Prokofiev Concerto No. 3.

Yakushev was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, where he studied music and earned a bachelor's degree at the Rimsky-Korsakoff Music College in the 1990s.

"The '90s were rough," he said. "I didn't see a point in staying in Russia and struggling there, so I decided to continue my studies elsewhere. I got lucky. I was accepted at all four schools that I applied for."

They included Finland, which was "a little too close to St. Petersburg" and London, which "seemed a little too rainy."

He opted for Mannes College, an elite conservatory in New York City, "a sunny, beautiful place that had always intrigued me. I never regretted that decision."

At Mannes he came perilously close to becoming a perpetual student. "I took every possible degree. I wanted to stay in school." But in 2006 he was offered a contract and had to re-evaluate his choices.

"It was basically a turning point in my career. I realized that there were many students who were not getting contracts. I realized that there was this professional interest in my career. I realized that it was worth it for me to try to go on with music."

His debut with the San Francisco Symphony was regarded as one of the top concerts of the year. He's now juggling assignments that range from recording all of the Prokofiev piano sonatas to teaching and traveling to perform in places like Alaska.

It's not his first trip to the state, he said. "I played Prokofiev's Third with the Fairbanks Orchestra conducted by my colleague Eduard Zilberkant."

Yakushev praised Zilberkant as "one of those people who's so dedicated to what he does that he brings the best out of everybody. He knows everything about everything."

The two teach at the celebrated two-week International Keyboard Institute and Festival at Mannes College.

"I love teaching because not only the student learns," Yakushev said. "Teaching teaches you as a teacher."

His main non-musical love is cars. "I'm not married and don't have a family. But I have four cars for some reason," he said. He keeps two in the U.S. and two in Russia. "I spend quite a bit of time working on them."

He also takes his time working on the music he plays.

"Styles vary and that's a great thing; imagine how boring it would be if everything was the same," he said. "But that means we need to spend some time studying the different styles, the history, the lives of the composers. I always want to know what's the story behind the piece. A couple of times I've been asked to play some contemporary works. Even before looking at the score, I want to know what the composer had in mind when he wrote it. It creates some kind of understanding before you see the notes. I find anything less unacceptable if you're a professional. I can forgive amateurs, but I'm kind of obligated."

The piece he's obligated to perform in Anchorage is regarded by many as the summit of writing for piano and orchestra. Brahms' Second Piano Concerto is the longest work in the genre regularly performed. It has four movements instead of the classical set of two or three, a scale that's more suited to a full symphony than to a concerto.

"The Brahms is a monster," Yakushev said. "An incredible piece of music, a masterpiece. I want to accent that word 'masterpiece.' Brahms was at that point so mature as an artist, so polished, so accomplished. You have the whole range of his compositional tools in that concerto. It goes from dramatic in the first two movements to a very playful finale, almost like a Hungarian dance. And it has one of the deepest slow movements Brahms ever wrote."

In few other concertos, if any, is the piano so thoroughly integrated with the orchestra. The sonic landscape ranges from massive pillars of crashing chords to extended spells that feel like chamber music. Many members of the orchestra -- notably horn and cello -- face long stretches where they're as exposed as the piano soloist. There are stunning twists of compositional genius, like a brilliantly misleading false recapitulation in the first movement, and sumptuous melodic themes that have not been appropriated for widely known songs only because poets can't think of lyrics good enough for the purpose.

Brahms' Second Concerto is almost always heard as the last half of a concert, as was the case here in 1988. But for the upcoming program it will occupy the first half. Conductor Randall Craig Fleischer is concluding the night with another romantic monument, Hector Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique."

The Berlioz lays out a kind of cinema in sound, telling a story. An artist with a broken heart takes drugs and has a dream in which he meets his beloved at a ball, then kills her in the countryside, then is executed (by guillotine!) and finally attends his own funeral. The finale, in which the chanting of monks and tolling of church bells work in counterpoint with a wild dance of demons led by the beloved, now transformed into a witch, is another twist of compositional genius that has seldom been matched.

Delving into the tales and details of such music is one of the most satisfying aspects of his work, Yakushev said.

"One achievement for all musicians, unless you're selfish and not honest with yourself, is that we all want to reach that point where we can say, 'I understand now. I know what it is now.'

"There's no such thing as perfection. We sit at the piano every day and always discover something new. Every day is a new experience, a new story. It's an unending process that I find exciting, enriching and extremely beautiful."

Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332. Because Atwood Concert Hall was not yet completed in 1988, the Anchorage Symphony had to play in the smaller Discovery Theatre. The number of musicians crammed onto the stage raised concerns over what might happen if the piano were to roll.

In addition to the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2, the program, conducted by Stephen Stein, included Jean Sibelius' "Finlandia" and "Symphony(S), Book I" by contemporary composer Eric Stokes, who was in town for the performance. Stokes died in 1999; an Internet search uncovered no subsequent performances of the piece.

Emanuel Ax, who had earned two Grammy awards for albums made with cellist Yo-Yo Ma when he performed with the Anchorage Symphony, has since received five more.

He will play Ludwig van Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 with the San Francisco Symphony on Thursday, Friday and Saturday before going to New York for a performance of Richard Strauss' "Enoch Arden" with former "Star Trek" actor Patrick Stewart.


mdunham@adn.com Anchorage Daily News