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Vermont Symphony Orchestra Hosts Pianist Peter Serkin in Concert


Published September 19, 2018 at 10:00 a.m.

  • Courtesy Of Peter Serkin
  • Peter Serkin

The Vermont Symphony Orchestra opens its season with the return of a near native — pianist Peter Serkin, who grew up in Guilford. Yes, one of those Serkins.

"This is kind of like classical-music royalty," says VSO executive director Ben Cadwallader. "That last name is pretty much a household name."

Serkin, now 71, was 4 years old when his father, the pianist Rudolf Serkin, cofounded the Marlboro Music Festival with a group that also included Peter's grandfather, the violinist Adolf Busch. Serkin attended Guilford's one-room schoolhouse until age 11, when his family moved to Philadelphia so he could study at the Curtis Institute of Music.

Serkin went on to perform with the world's major orchestras, led by Simon Rattle, Seiji Ozawa, Daniel Barenboim and others. And Marlboro became, and remains, one of the most celebrated summertime musicians' retreats in the country.

Seven Days was not able to obtain an interview with Serkin, who rarely grants them. "He's incredibly shy," says VSO conductor Jaime Laredo, who has known Serkin since the pianist was 10. "He can't stand to talk about himself."

The conductor, who is also a violinist, has performed with Serkin "many, many times," he says — first at Marlboro, when Laredo was 18 and Serkin 14; and most recently last year, playing Brahms' Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34, in Cincinnati.

Laredo also conducted during Serkin's two previous appearances with the VSO, when he played Brahms piano concertos. This Saturday, September 22, Serkin will play Béla Bartók's third piano concerto on a program that also includes "Lyric for Strings" by George Walker — the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for music — and Brahms' fourth symphony.

Bartók had his own Green Mountain connection: About a year after arriving in the U.S. in 1940, the Hungarian composer spent a month with friends who lived in Berlin, Vt. He was already sick with leukemia, which would result in his death in 1945. Bartók composed little during his last five years until a burst of creativity on his deathbed resulted in Piano Concerto No. 3 in E Major.

Intended as a surprise birthday gift for his second wife, Ditta Pásztory-Bartók, the piece is lyrical and largely unrelated either to Bartók's modernist leanings or to the Hungarian folk songs he assiduously collected by phonograph and used in much of his work. In a middle movement, marked "Adagio religioso," piano and strings alternate in a series of call-and-response passages of serene beauty.

Cadwallader says he finds it "amazing" that such an "upbeat, floating, accessible" work was composed when Bartók was so ill. "When Mozart was in that position," the director and oboist points out, "he wrote a requiem."

As a pianist, Serkin is well suited to playing a piece of such emotional depth, says Laredo: "He's so probing, so curious. He may play a piece he's played a thousand times, but for him it has to be like the first time. He always finds something new in the piece or in himself; he's always evolving. And it makes me grow, too."

In this case, Serkin's approach actually will be new to Laredo, who will be conducting the piece for the first time.

Serkin's appearance is one of many made possible by Laredo's friendships and connections with the classical world's most eminent musicians. This season's Masterworks concerts also include appearances by the violinists Jennifer Koh and Pamela Frank, who both studied with Laredo at Curtis; and by New York Philharmonic principal clarinetist Anthony McGill.

As for Serkin, Laredo declares, he "is just a giant among musicians."

The original print version of this article was headlined "VSO Hosts Pianist Peter Serkin in Masterworks Concert"