Just a handful of classical-music instrumentalists can routinely sell out concert halls, and pianist Evgeny Kissin certainly must be counted among them. Beginning in the late 1980s, the Russian-born virtuoso took the keyboard world by storm as a wunderkind, and his hold on audiences has continued since. He impresses not only with his unsurpassed technique but also with the rare intelligence and nuance of his interpretations.
In an unusual twist of scheduling, Chicago audiences will have two chances within a month to hear Kissin this fall at Orchestra Hall. He joins guest conductor Andrew Davis and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for an Oct. 15 performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and then returns for a Nov. 15 solo recital (which starts at 2 p.m., an hour earlier than usual) under the auspices of the Symphony Center Presents Piano Series.
His appearance with the symphony will come just a week after he performs the same concerto with the New York Philharmonic as part of Carnegie Hall’s opening-night gala on Oct. 7. It will be the first of six concerts he will perform in the venerable New York concert hall as the featured performer in its annual Perspectives series. The focus on Kissin celebrates the 25th anniversary of his now-legendary Carnegie recital debut, which was recorded live as double album on the RCA Victor Red Seal label. In addition to performing with two different orchestras, he will take part in a trio concert and present three solo recitals there this season. “I was simply flattered and honored when I received an invitation to do this in Carnegie Hall’s 125th season,” Kissin said via e-mail. “As for structuring my programs, I wasn’t to trying to accomplish anything by that. I simply wanted, as I always do, to play music I love.”
A highlight of his Carnegie appearances will be a Dec. 16 reprisal of an adventuresome concert he presented in 2014 at the Kennedy Center in which he will perform piano works by lesser-known Jewish composers and recite Yiddish poetry. “When we speak of virtuosity, we generally mean technical ability,” wrote music critic Anne Midgette in the Washington Post. “It takes a different kind of virtuosity to play four musical pieces and declaim 13 poems in Yiddish (including the encore, “The Joy of the Yiddish Word” by Yankev Glatshteyn) entirely from memory, all with equal mastery. I wish that Kissin were creating a new world of possibilities for all star performers, but I’m not sure anyone else has the virtuosity to step this far outside the box with such honesty and dignity and power. I also wish this concert had been recorded. As it is, it is an evening I will remember all my life.”
Asked about the inspiration for this distinctive program, Kissin, 43, who took Israeli citizenship in December 2013, was modest in his response, saying he simply wanted to present audiences with music from the cultural legacy of what he called “my people.” On whether there might be more such Jewish-themed concerts in the works, he said, “I am not planning other programs of this kind, but I certainly do not exclude the possibility of doing them in the future.”
Kissin’s solo recital in Chicago will come just days after he performs the same program twice at Carnegie Hall. The program opens with Mozart’s Sonata in C Major, K. 330, and continues with Beethoven’s Sonata in F Minor, Op. 57 (Appassionata), Brahms’ Three Intermezzos, Op. 117, and a group of selections by Isaac Albéniz. It concludes with ¡Viva Navarra! by lesser-known Spanish composer Joaquin Larregla (1865-1945).
Of the pairing of Austro-Germanic composers with those from Spain, Kissin puts little weight on the juxtaposition. “I don’t think that the nationality of composers matters here, but only the music itself,” he said. “Some years ago during my tour of Spain, someone gave me a copy of Larregla’s ¡Viva Navarra! as I returned home. I played it for myself and thought that it would be a good piece to end a program with. So last year, when I started thinking about the solo program for this season, I decided to play it.”
Former classical music critic of the Denver Post, Kyle MacMillan is a Chicago-based arts writer.