Although pianist Nicholas Angelich has performed in major American cities such as New York, Philadelphia and Boston, he has somehow never appeared in Chicago. That will finally change March 7-10, when he joins guest conductor James Feddeck and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for concerts at Symphony Center and Wheaton College.
Angelich is sure that his late father, Borivoje “Bora” Angelich, a Yugoslavian immigrant who played violin in the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra for 46 years, would have been thrilled about this important debut. “It’s a great honor to play with such an incredible orchestra,” he said. “I’m sure both parents, but especially my father having been in an orchestra musician in the United States for so many years, that would have really meant something to him.”
Now 49, the American-born pianist began lessons with his mother when he was 5 and gave a performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 just two years later. As his talent became more apparent, his parents realized he needed more advanced studies, and a friend of his mother recommended that the budding musician audition with famed Italian-French pianist Aldo Ciccolini. When he was just 13, Angelich moved to France and enrolled at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique in Paris, where Ciccolini was one of his main teachers.
“So it’s one of those wild things that happen in a musician’s life very early,” Angelich said. “You leave home to study some place else. It’s a question of meeting a certain person at a certain time, and things work or they don’t. It was a very difficult decision for my family, and somehow it just happened.”
Because he spoke not a word of French before moving to France, his parents enrolled him in intense private lessons there, and he was able to absorb the language quickly and become fluent. He still lives in Paris, and many, if not most, of his performances each year take place in Europe, where he is probably better known than in the United States.
Angelich is particularly reputed for his performances of the music of Johannes Brahms, especially the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 83, which the great German composer completed in 1881. In 2016, pianist even wrote an essay on the work for Gramophone magazine as part of a series on the great piano concertos.
“This Brahms work is of course a cornerstone of the piano repertoire,” wrote music critic Jeremy Eichler in the Boston Globe after a performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2011, “but Angelich seemed to take nothing for granted in the inner two movements, conjuring unusual veiled sonorities, drawing out inner lines that often go unnoticed, and dispatching rapid passagework with remarkable lightness and dynamic control. Pianissimos floated effortlessly into the hall. He also showed just how subtly the piano can mimic orchestral voices, uncannily summoning at different moments the woodiness of the clarinets and the pointed brightness of the principal flute.”
Angelich is not quite sure how to explain his affinity for Brahms: “It’s hard a question, because how do you talk about something that you love? It seems easy but it can be quite difficult. Brahms, it seems very natural to me. It wasn’t easy but it seemed natural pianistically speaking.” Typically, pianists learn Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 before the Second, but he was drawn to the Second Concerto first, learning it when he was 14 and performing it ever since.
For his CSO debut, the pianist will perform a concerto not by Brahms but one by another celebrated German composer – Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73 (Emperor). Like Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto, Angelich learned this work when he was 14, and he played it for the first when he was 16. “As time goes on,” he said, “I’m more and more fascinated with Beethoven. It’s hard to talk about it. Why are we fascinated by certain things? I think there is a universal element, a humanity in his music, which speaks to all of us in a very powerful way.”
Even though the Emperor Concerto is heard regularly each year around the globe, Angelich doesn’t believe that an interpreter should try to put his or her stamp on it. It is enough, he said, to learn the work fully and perform it with as much sincerity and understanding as possible.
“I don’t believe that one should try to do things in a different way,” he said. “You are who you are and you play as you are. And who you are is definitely important, and that somehow expresses itself whether you want to or not. But the most important thing is to try to understand and respect the musical score, and that’s what I was basically taught since very early on, and that is something that can give you tremendous inspiration and actually help you find new ideas when you play the piece again.”