March 7 2012 12:00 AM

Guest pianist Philippe Bianconi plunges into a sea of Brahms with Lansing Symphony Orchestra


For a globe-trotting pianist with some top-shelf awards on his mantel, Philippe Bianconi seems to have a pronounced Buddhist streak. He loves nothing more than to dissolve into something greater than himself.

“When I’m here in France, I love to go to the Brittany coast,” he said in a phone interview from his Paris apartment. “I love walking on those cliffs and breathing the air. Sometimes I just sit and look at the ocean for hours.”

Bianconi can take a quicker break from practicing at home by standing at his piano and looking over a sea of rooftops in the City of Light. His piano is on the second floor of a duplex, with his quarters below, so he can dive into the music without splashing anyone.

“As I’m talking to you, I can see the (basilica) Sacre Couer, and it’s illuminated,” he reported. “It’s pretty nice.”

Bianconi merges into another kind of sea Saturday when he teams with Lansing Symphony maestro Timothy Muffitt to perform the grandest and most symphonic of piano concertos, Johannes Brahms’ Second.The concerto is often called a “symphony with piano,” very different from the star vehicles many soloists relish.

“Even though the piano part is really big and difficult, it’s still part of the whole orchestral architecture,” Bianconi said. “It’s a wonderful feeling when you’re up there playing it, to be part of that rich symphonic texture. I feel like I’m playing in a Brahms symphony.”

Bianconi loves to play intimate chamber music as well as big orchestral works. For him, the Brahms concerto hits both sweet spots.

“There are wonderful moments of interaction between the piano and some solo instruments,” he said. “The beginning of the slow movement, with the solo cello  — you are there, sitting on the stage, and you hear this music, you just cry. It’s so incredibly beautiful.”

Bianconi has never played in Lansing before, but he and Muffitt worked together twice with Muffitt’s other orchestra, the Baton Rouge Symphony. In 2002, they performed both Ravel piano concertos and reunited in 2010 for the Tchaikovsky piano concerto. “I was very pleased,” Bianconi said. “For most of the concerto, we had similar ideas.”

The same way mountain climbers get around to talking about Everest sooner or later, the maestro and the pianist first broached the topic of Brahms at their 2010 meeting.

“I didn’t know what he was thinking then, but when I got the invitation I was really thrilled,” Bianconi said. “I never say ‘greatest,’ but I place the Brahms concertos above anything else.”

Concerto gigs come in streaks. Bianconi last played the Brahms Second in 2009, following a cluster of performances between 2000 and 2005. This June, he’ll play it again with the Sydney Symphony in Australia.

“With any great masterpiece, after you haven’t played it for a while, you discover new things, details that make you so happy when they come out of the score suddenly.” 

Although Bianconi grew up listening to his parents’ LPs, nobody pushed him into music. There was no piano in the house. Bianconi said his parents were puzzled when he simply announced at age 7, “I want to play the piano.”

While Mom and Dad scrambled to find him an upright piano, he studied with a private teacher who assigned homework by drawing a keyboard on a piece of paper and writing the names of the notes on the keys.

“When I was home, I practiced on the paper,” Bianconi said. “When I actually got the piano, it was like magic.”

He has never looked back since, although he admits he’s had some ups and downs.

“There were times I had to cope with nerves,” he said. “Am I good enough to give justice to the pieces I’m playing? Sometimes you feel it’s too difficult, but deep inside there is something that tells you that this is your life and you’re not going to stop.”

He feels winning the silver medal, not the gold, in the seventh Van Cliburn in 1985 competition was “the best thing that could have happened.” (He also won first prize at the Cleveland International Piano Competition in 1981.) After the Cliburn, Bianconi was offered 50 concerts a year for the next three years, “enough to keep me busy.”

“The gold medalist (José Feghali of Brazil) got 100 concerts, and I’m not sure I could have coped with that,” he admitted.

But why was he drawn to the piano in the first place? Bianconi’s answer is more Parisian than Buddhist.

“Maybe it was something from — who knows, God, if you believe in God, or in me, that attracted me to that instrument,” he said. “There is definitely something mysterious in anybody’s relationship with art. It’s like love. Love is very mysterious.”

Lansing Symphony Orchestra:

Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2

Philippe Bianconi, piano

8 p.m. Saturday, March 10

Wharton Center


(517) 487-5001