Though many other great pianists of the past are remembered primarily for their concerto and solo recital work, an argument can be made that today’s leading pianists lead more complete careers. They still perform abundant solo recitals and orchestral concertos, but many also emphasize chamber music. As evidence, look no further than four of the pianists featured this year at Ravinia: Daniil Trifonov, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Jon Kimura Parker and Marta Aznavoorian.

Each will be heard at least once this summer alongside a singer or other instrumentalist. Parker, a Ravinia regular since 1991, joins cellist Gary Hoffman on July 24, and Trifonov, one of today’s most celebrated young keyboardists, will partner July 29 with baritone Matthias Goerne. Aznavoorian appears twice this summer at Ravinia, including an Aug. 21 pairing with violinist Philippe Quint for a program based on their recent recording of music featured or written by filmmaker Charlie Chaplin.

Thibaudet will be featured in Gershwin’s Concerto in F with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on July 13 and then returns July 22 for a recital with a longtime collaborator, cellist Gautier Capuçon. The French pianist teamed with Capuçon and violinist Lisa Batiashvili for a European trio tour in November, and they plan to follow it up with a North American jaunt in 2020.

“What has totally changed,” says Parker, a professor of piano at Rice University in Houston, “is that now I would not consider any pianist to be a complete artist unless they were comfortable in all three roles — chamber music being highly important because of the collaborative aspect of it and the idea of sharing your musical ideas with others.”

But keeping up three different phases of a piano career is enormously challenging. It means careful scheduling of appearances and taking varied approaches to rehearsals and performances depending on the kinds of repertoire involved.

“I used to just play everything in any order, whatever,” Thibaudet said. “And I had no problem playing two concertos and then running out and doing a recital.” But those days are over. In recent years, he has begun to carefully organize his schedule, making a point of only performing recitals every two years or so. That said, he is open to tucking in chamber concerts here and there, because he can play from sheet music and doesn’t face the pressure of having everything memorized. He is particularly willing if it is a collaborator he knows well, like Capuçon.

“With him, virtually you could call me today and say, ‘We need you tomorrow to play a [duo] recital; someone canceled,’ and we could do it,” he said. “We could probably go onstage without rehearsing as long as we know our parts, because we play so much together and we have such an incredible chemistry and intimacy in our playing.”

About the only concessions pianists have to make in performing solo recitals are adapting to the keyboard instruments they encounter at each stop and adjusting to a hall’s acoustics. Even so, Trifonov argues that such concerts are the most demanding because the pianist has total responsibility for sustaining a high level of playing for a concert’s entirety.

“When one is alone on stage, it takes a lot of concentration to build atmosphere and create a certain special environment and to keep the concentration of the audience on the music,” Trifonov said. “It takes more psychological energy in recitals — more than any other type of music making.”

Working with other musicians on a concerto or trio would seemingly require some kind of compromise, but none of the four pianists are comfortable with this notion. Thibaudet says the word seems too negative, as though the performer has to give up something. He views such music-making as a collaboration in which he exchanges ideas with other artists and everyone learns from each other. Trifonov agrees, saying such opportunities are about finding common ground.

“If there are so many compromises, then it might not be the best match,” Trifonov said. “In an ideal situation, things go in an organic way, and there is a very mutual understanding between the performers, both in chamber music and concertos. Not every collaboration can be optimal, but when good chemistry happens, it’s always great.”

Kyle MacMillan, formerly the classical music critic for the Denver Post from 2000 through 2011, is a Chicago-based arts journalist. 

Note: This is an excerpt from an article published in the Ravinia magazine. To read the complete story, click here.