April 13 2011 12:00 AM

Pianist Nel lends three hands to Ravel at LSO closer


Guest soloists at symphony concerts often yawn through the same bromides: “I’m really looking forward to playing Nabob’s Ninth Nurdle — I’ve played it since I was a zygote.”

You can almost see the thought balloon above the distracted face: “How far will the fee go to remodel the summer home?”

Pianist Anton Nel, by contrast, sounds like he’s drinking espresso with iron filings and keeping a chamber pot next to the piano. With two sparkling concertos by French Impressionist master Maurice Ravel to play at Saturday’s Lansing Symphony season closer, Nel was practicing like mad in his Austin, Texas studio, last week.

“I live for this concert,” he said, in a breathless patter. “I play a lot of music, and of everything I’ve learned in recent years, this is the most fascinating project I’ve had. It’s been so addictive.”

Saturday night, Ravel’s two concertos — one darker, the other more of a dazzler — will be sandwiched inside two works by American master George Gershwin, a composer with a deep affinity to Ravel. The night begins with Gershwin’s “Cuban Overture” and ends with the bustling, athletic “An American in Paris” suite.

Saturday is the first time Nel will perform Ravel’s famous concerto for the left hand, a musical curiosity that made it into the pantheon of masterpieces by virtue of sheer beauty and unexpected complexity.

“It’s thrilling, but it’s also an exercise,” Nel said. “My left hand has gotten so much stronger just from playing it.”

Ravel’s darkly fascinating music was a gesture of healing after the slaughter of World War I. Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein lost his right arm in that war, while fighting Russians in Poland. When it was over, he asked a slew of the day’s great composers, including Ravel, to write music for the left hand. The music helped him resume a successful career.

The other music Wittgenstein commissioned — even from giants like Prokofiev, Britten, Hindemith and Richard Strauss — faded into obscurity, but Ravel’s concerto became a perennial.

“Of all the left-hand music out there, this is miles ahead, the greatest,” Nel said.

The concerto has an odd visual fascination, too. “From an audience standpoint, it really is spectacular to watch,” Nel said. “There is a lot of stuff going on. If you’re not looking, it sounds like two hands.”

But Nel said he is finding the concerto more taxing, in some ways, than a normal two-handed piece.

“The hand has to accompany itself, the hand has to be contrapuntal, it has to do everything,” he said. “It’s taken me a fairly long time to internalize the piece, but I can hardly wait to play it.”

Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, Nel did a stint as chairman of the piano department at the University of Michigan in the late 1990s. These days, he’s one of those distinguished yet hip endowed profs that seem to congregate at the University of Austin. He still does recitals at places like Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, and tours the world. He became a U.S. citizen on Sept. 11, 2003.

In contrast to the left-hand concerto, Ravel’s G Major concerto (for two hands) is an old friend to Nel. It was the first piece he learned when he came to the United States to study at the University of Cincinnati in 1983.

“I have a very soft spot for it,” Nel said. “I play it a lot.”

The concerto has a crisp crust of syncopated, pseudo-jazz, but its sonic texture is so exquisite it drove Nel to invent a new adverb.

“Like all of Ravel, it’s geniusly orchestrated,” he said.

“The way it starts, with the whip crack, the piccolo solo, the strings shimmering, and the piano is in there somewhere.”

The concerto is crusty outside, but it oozes with a very French cream center — a gauzy, ultra-slow-dancing clinch of piano and English horn.

“That is one of the most beautiful things in all music, that slow movement,” Nel said.

Locals left with a craving for more of Anton Nel can catch him again at the innovative Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival in Detroit this June.

Lansing Symphony Orchestra

Anton Nel, piano

8 pm. Saturday, April 16 Wharton Center Cobb Great Hall $12-$45  (517) 487-5001 www.lansingsymphony.org