Symphony meets storybook

By Lawrence Cosentino

Charlie Albright performs 'Fantasies & Fairy Tales'

At 23, pianist Charlie Albright is getting rave reviews, piling up awards and playing all over the map, but he’s not losing his head over it. While studying music at Harvard, the soloist for the Lansing Symphony’s season closer Thursday piled on two more degrees, in economics and pre-med.

“If I don’t have something to fall back on, I could end up living under a bridge,” he said. “My family doesn’t have any kind of a trust fund. I have to be practical.”

With any luck, the 2010 Gilmore Young Artist won’t have to pack a stethoscope anytime soon. With his career still in its rosy dawn, Albright has combined dexterity, depth and dramatic insight to forge a strong, original style.

When Albright made his New York Debut at Merkin Concert Hall a year ago, Vivien Schweitzer of The New York Times enthused over his “jaw-dropping technique” and “soulful introspection.” Critics in other cities have also rhapsodized similarly.

Albright will team up with maestro Timothy Muffitt and the LSO Thursday for the arch-romantic Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini of Sergei Rachmaninoff.

The Rhapsody’s famous theme and heart-tugging variations will be the perfect showcase for the many moods of Charlie.

“Instead of three movements, this one has 20-something, so you can change every few minutes,” he said. “It’s one of those pieces where you can really let loose, because the notes aren’t really that important. Everyone knows what the theme is, so the notes become less important than the feeling of each of the parts.”

Albright isn’t out to steamroller the listener, although his playing does leave some collateral dazzle. One of his favorite pieces to play is an obscure, deceptively simple sonata by Czech composer Leos Janacek, “From the Street.” On his first CD, Albright plumbs this somber music, a memorial to a murdered college student, with the world-weariness of a man four times his age.

“It’s emotionally draining,” Albright said of the Janacek sonata. “It’ll grow as I get older. I’m sure it’ll be a lifelong piece.”

Albright remains a down-to-Earth fan of “Family Guy,” the Sims and Korean pop music, even as he plays in higher and higher circles. In 2008, Albright played with cellist Yo-Yo Ma at a Harvard Honorary Degree ceremony honoring Sen. Ted Kennedy. Among the guests were Kennedy, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and then-Vice-President-Elect Joe Biden.

A few months ago, Albright gave a concert at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island. At a dinner afterwards, he found himself sitting next to geneticist James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA. Watson has been getting into some hot water lately for comments on genetics, race, intelligence, libido and other hot-button topics. What did they discuss? Add “diplomat” to Albright’s many talents. “Oh, we talked about anything and everything, just random stuff,” he said.

It’s heady company, but Albright is used to it from his years at Harvard, where he was the first classical pianist to graduate from a joint program with the New England Conservatory of Music.

“Everyone there seems really passionate and amazing at something, whether it’s math or biology or something else,” he said. “They’re all dedicated to their slice of life. You got to meet phenomenal people in every field, and that was humbling.”

No wonder Albright took the pains to get the extra degrees. In his world, everybody is a hot shot.

“I’ve been very fortunate up to now, but once you reach a certain level, there are amazing people all over the place, spectacular pianists and musicians. The sad thing is, a lot of them don’t even get to perform.”

Albright appears in Lansing courtesy of the LSO’s ties with Kalamazoo’s inventive Gilmore Keyboard Festival, which draws to a close Saturday. This is the second year a Gilmore artist has soloed with the Lansing Symphony. It’s a win-win-win: Lansing audiences get to hear a top young artist, the Gilmore Foundation pays the artist’s fee, Gilmore artists get more gigs and the festival gets a promotional boost. The neatness of it all moved Muffitt to quote Robert Browning. “The stars really lined up for our relationship with the Gilmore” he said. “‘The hillside dew-pearled, all’s right with the world.’”

This week, Muffitt has further reason to be pleased, if not smug. The maestro built an almost mathematical inevitability into Thursday’s program. Take the refined French colors of Maurice Ravel, throw in the stormy Russian angst of Rachmaninoff, let intermission stand for the equal sign, and you get “Petrouchka,” the evening (and season) closer.

In Muffitt’s view, the splashy ballet suite by cosmopolitan Russian composer Igor Stravinsky is an amalgam of the French and Russian traditions: “It’s full of Russian sounding folklore, Russian character and atmosphere, but it’s the brilliance of his French background that really makes the music come to life.”

Lansing Symphony Orchestra

Charlie Albright, piano

8 p.m. Thursday,

May 10

Wharton Center

Cobb Great Hall


(517) 487-5001