Wednesday, Oct 03 2012 10:09 AM

Soloist gives piano favorite fresh take at BSO opener

BY SUSAN SCAFFIDI Contributing writer

Pianist and composer Michael Brown is at the beginning of his career, and although just graduated from the Juilliard School, he is already gaining a lot of attention. Brown is the guest soloist with Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra for the opening of the orchestra's 81st season Saturday.

Brown will perform the Piano Concerto in A minor by Edvard Grieg.

Related Info

Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra

When: 8 p.m.; concert lecture, 7 p.m. Saturday

Where: Rabobank Theater, 1001 Truxtun Ave.

Admission: $34 and up; students, half price. Available at Rabobank Theater box office, Ticketmaster.

The performer is emerging from a whirlwind summer of concerts, including a stay at the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont, the Olympic Music Festival in Seattle, and even a performance with the Santa Maria Symphony, under the direction of BSO conductor John Farrer.

It was there that he performed the Grieg concerto for the first time in his young career, despite the fact that the piece is one of the most easily recognizable compositions in the piano repertoire.

"Maybe I'm crazy, but I don't see (the Grieg concerto) performed that much," Brown said. "There's a sense of freedom and spirit about it, a freshness that's still there."

Brown said he had heard the concerto many times while growing up, but only began learning it recently.

"It's a lot more complex than you think as a child," Brown said. "It has these great tunes in it and all, but other things come out when you get older and you start studying the score."

Edvard Grieg composed the Piano Concerto in A minor -- his only piano concerto -- in 1868, at the forefront of the nationalist movement in art music.

Grieg asserted his Norwegian heritage, refusing to be lumped in as "Scandinavian" and took his inspiration from Norwegian folk music.

"I'm struck by the operatic writing in parts of the concerto," Brown said. "The rustic dance, the flute solo, the dialogue between the orchestra and the piano, the pairing of the piano with different instruments."

Brown has been gaining considerable notice not only as a pianist, but also as a composer.

He has been able to play his own work, "Constellations and Toccata," at several recent recitals, to favorable reviews, while earning praise for his discovering and championing previously unknown work by composer George Perle.

"Leading a double life is not easy," Brown said. "But it's nice how the two feed off each other."

"I learn more about my playing from my composing, and my playing informs my work as a composer," he said.

Being a classical artist in 2012 is not easy, as many performing ensembles are cutting back from both shrinking revenues and shrinking -- and aging -- audiences. But Brown, like many of his peers, is capitalizing on a trend to take the music where the listeners are, instead of hoping they come to him.

And that means playing in some unconventional places -- bars, barges, galleries, restaurants and other venues not originally intended for art music performances.

"(These venues) attract a younger audience," Brown said. "It's great; I can play my own compositions in a bar and they love it."

Brown said such performance venues and projects aren't everyone's cup of tea, but he's enjoying the freedom they provide for him as a composer -- and it's changing some people's mind about classical music.

"You don't pigeonhole classical music as this unchanging, dying thing," Brown said. "Because it's not."

Saturday's concert also marks the 80th birthday of the BSO, and in celebration, the orchestra is performing some of the works from the orchestra's first concert in 1932: the March from Hector Berlioz's "The Damnation of Faust," and the Symphony No. 8 in B minor (The "Unfinished") by Franz Schubert.

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