The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music Q&A: Pianist Andre Watts talks about rediscovering the greatness of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg and his Piano Concerto

September 14, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, the celebrated American virtuoso pianist Andre Watts (below) will return to Madison where he will perform Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 16, with the Madison Symphony Orchestra under John DeMain. My best guess is that it will be a  MUST-HEAR concert,  especially for people relatively new to classical music.

Also on the season opener program, which features the Madison Symphony Chorus and Madison Youth Choirs (the advanced Cantabile Choir of high school women), are Beethoven’s iconic and irresistibly dramatic Fifth Symphony and “On the Transmigration of Souls, the Pulitzer Prize-winning work about the terrorist attacks of 9/11 by the American composer John Adams.

Performances are in Overture Hall, which Watts says he likes because it reminds him of the old Philharmonia Hall that preceded Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall, the hall where he started his career at 16 as  a protege of Leonard Bernstein. Performances are on Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $16.50 to $78.50 with $10 student rush available with student ID. (You can purchase up to two tickets for best seats available with each ID.)

About his return to Madison, Watts says simply: “I’ve always had a good time there. John DeMain and I have an easy working relationship and a certain respect as well as affection for each other. That always makes it easy and fun to look forward to.”

For more information about tickets and program notes, visit:

I recently spoke with Watts (below)  via telephone from his home in New York City about Edvard Grieg:

What should the public know about Grieg’s Piano Concerto?

Rachmaninoff once said the Grieg Concerto is the most “perfect” piano concerto ever written. That might be hyperbole. But the concerto is extraordinarily well written.

Grieg is a really great composer. Our problem nowadays in society and in the entire world is figuring out who is the greatest composer in the world and then saying everybody else is schlock. But that’s not real life.

Grieg (below) is very individualistic. His harmonic movement is very specific. That is why it is easy to recognize Grieg’s music. As far as his being a great composer, he is also a wonderful craftsman. Even the cadenza is amazing. To have it written out and yet sound that improvisatory is a neat little trick.

On the one hand Grieg was somewhat shy and fearful and retiring about his own worth. Yet there is this story in the diary of his wife Nina. They were at a dinner party and she was seated between Brahms and Tchaikovsky, which is already a big deal because Tchaikovsky wrote terrible things about Brahms. His wife said, “I can’t sit between these two men.” And Grieg said, “Well, then we’ll trade places. I can.” He understood he had worth and could stand beside them.

Would you call him underestimated or unjustly neglected these days?

Besides the concerto, I have only played the Third Violin Sonata and some of the Lyric Pieces but not a lot of Grieg. So I don’t have a sense of where he sits in the music world among conductors and orchestra players.

For many years this concerto was very much a kind of pops concerto piece, which I have never understood. I’m pleased to see that it is now accepted as a standard piece of the classical literature.

I’m 65, so when I was a teenager the Grieg concerto was one of the wonderful piano concertos. On recordings, it was always paired with the Schumann Piano Concerto and it was a very respected piece.

But then it is always the case that rather than overexposure and poor performances being recognized for what they are – namely, we’ve heard it too many times in too many poor performances – the music itself gets dumped on and people say, “Well that’s not a very good piece.”

But this piece stands on its own. What has been done to it is the fault of the people doing it. I think the music is quite wonderful.

To you, what accounts for the appeal of Grieg?

There is always the Nordic aspect, that northern coolness, you hear. It certainly is not necessary to have been to Norway to play this piece. But having been in Norway and been to his home (below top) by the water, where he is buried (below bottom), I can see it is all of a piece. You get a real sense of him.

Grieg was very much a child of his surroundings. He was not happy unless he was home. You can feel that in his music.

Why is Grieg so popular whenever he is played?

He has a great melodic sense. There are no really long stretches but a lot of change. There are shifting views of the same music. There are nice orchestral solos and chamber music interplay and a big solo passages and a cadenza for the piano. It is altogether very interesting.

It is fun to play, but it can be tricky. Pieces like that can lose their luster easily if they aren’t handled with care. Grieg was very precise about his phrasing. If you follow his directions, it becomes quite pure and not schlocky. For example, when the Romantic theme comes in the last movement, his indication is that it should be melancholy but not slow down; it should have deep emotional impact but not slow down. It must have sentiment but not sentimentality.

Things fall in and out of favor, like the Grieg concerto. There are cycles. It is a human quality. That tells you that you never really need to be apologetic for a love or belief you have in a composer or in some kind of music.

Posted in Classical music

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