Jorge Federico Osorio

Sometimes first impressions can be dead wrong.

Pianist Jorge Federico Osorio, a native of Mexico and current resident of Highland Park, will perform Carlos Chavez’s Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and guest conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya in four concerts Dec. 12-17. Composed between 1938 and 1940 and given its world premiere in 1942 with the New York  Philharmonic, the concerto has become something of a signature work for Osorio. But when he first approached it as a teenager, it didn’t spark his interest.

“I encountered it for the first time in 1966,” said Osorio, whose soft-spoken manner belies the fire and energy he can bring to the keyboard. “I was much younger, of course. I worked on it little by little for maybe the first half of the first movement. And then I left it because I really wasn’t enjoying it very much. Somehow it didn’t appeal to me; I didn’t fully understand it.”

About a dozen years ago, the Festival Internacional Cervantino, a leading international arts festival held each fall in Guanajuato in central Mexico, asked Osorio to perform the concerto.

“I decided to look at it again,” he said. “I completely changed my mind, and I’ve loved the concerto ever since. I discovered that it’s maybe the most important Mexican concerto. [There is] the energy, the drive, but at the same time there are so many elements that are very striking. It’s a big work and very dramatic. All these aspects just drew me more and more to it.

“It’s very expressive in many ways,” he added. “I’ve been looking again at Chavez’s markings, and everywhere he puts cantando [singing] and dolce. It’s not all the power and the vigor. It’s a combination of all these elements.”

Since that first performance at the Festival Cervantino, Osorio has performed the Chavez concerto throughout the world. Earlier this year, Chicago-based Cedille Records released a recording of the work with Osorio and the Orquesta Sinfonica Nacional de Mexico and conductor Carolos Miguel Prieto. But live performances of the piece are still relatively rare.

Carlos Chavez“It’s a very demanding work” for the orchestra as well as the soloist, Osorio explained. “It’s really not like a concerto for piano with accompaniment. The orchestral part is like a concertante. The orchestra and piano are constantly elaborating one with the other.”

Chicago audiences have had the pleasure of hearing Osorio regularly since 1998 when he moved with his wife and children to Highland Park after a decade based in England.

“We wanted to live in the States because of my career, but also it was  very important to keep in close contact with Mexico,” he said. “I had been playing already in Chicago — a recital downtown and at Grant Park [Music Festival]. I always thought the city was just a wonderful place. So when we moved from London, we thought we would try it out, and it’s been really terrific.”

Among Osorio’s recent Chicago performances was a cycle of all five Beethoven piano concertos with the CSO at the Ravinia Festival in 2010. In April, he gave a solo recital at Symphony Center that focused on Mexican and Spanish music.

Though his repertoire includes the usual mainstream concertos, Osorio is a champion of Mexican music and the country’s living composers. In June, he gave the world premiere of a new concerto written for him by Mexican composer Alexis Aranda. “Music is something that we all live with,” he said. “We have a responsibility to bring new things forward to the public, to be curious. When you believe in something you just do it.”

Osorio first met Chavez, who died in 1978, when he was a teenager attending a workshop at the National Symphony of Mexico. A few years later as Osorio’s career was getting started, he played Cesar Franck’s Symphonic Variations in Belgium with an orchestra conducted by Chavez.

“We spent some time together, which was really great,” Osorio recalled. “It was so easy to talk to him. By that time he had mellowed a little bit; he was thought to be very rough, but I didn’t find any of that. He told me he particularly admired Beethoven and Chopin. And funnily enough, there’s a strange quote from Beethoven’s Fourth Piano concerto in the third movement of his own concerto.”

Sadly, one topic the two didn’t discuss was Chavez concerto, which has become so dear to Osorio’s heart. “I wish I had asked him so many things about the concerto,” he said ruefully. “But many times in your life, you don’t realize what’s going to happen.”

Wynne Delacoma, formerly the classical music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, is a freelance writer and reviewer.

PHOTOS: Jorge Federico Osorio (above). | Todd Rosenberg Photography. INSET: Carlos Chavez.