Drew Petersen was 2 or 3 when he jumped onto his mom’s lap at the piano and started banging on the keys.
Banging quickly turned into pecking, guided by his mom’s old piano books. Toddler noises turned into the beginnings of beautiful music. Before long, his parents, seeing the potential in their precocious son, got him a teacher, a Juilliard grad who taught him to read music and introduced him to little pieces by Bach, Beethoven.
“I wasn’t playing the Grieg Concerto right away, but little pieces by Grieg, little pieces by Beethoven I did from the beginning,” said Petersen, 23, who makes his Tucson Symphony Orchestra debut this weekend with the Grieg. “I was very lucky. My parents, neither of them are particularly musical at all, but they are very interested in the arts. We went to concerts and museums. That was a big part of my growing up. In many ways I miss that because nowadays I am too busy playing the concerts to enjoy it myself.”
Petersen’s performance here is part of his prize for taking top honors in April in the 2017 American Pianists Awards, a 13-month-long, rigorous competition that included solo recitals before judges and concerto performances with the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra. It is the latest in a string of contest wins for the Harvard grad who made his Carnegie Hall debut at the age of 5 playing a small work by Beethoven.
Petersen’s Tucson performance will be the first time he’s played the Grieg with an orchestra.
“You get to be the first,” he said during a phone call in early November from his New York City home. “I’ve heard they (TSO) are phenomenal. Tucson to me ... seems like it’s kind of halfway off the face of the Earth. Really remote. And in this unusual setting and fabulous place we have this fabulous ensemble that I get to play with. This kind of checks my boxes in all kinds of ways.”
During our chat, Petersen explained how he approaches the Grieg Concerto and what he expects to discover in Tucson in his first-ever trip to the state.
Lots of desert: “I think me being from the Northeast, I expect lots of desert. Very dry, which is a nice welcome change. We’ve been having super-wet, humid, disgusting weather here, so I can’t wait.”
Making the Grieg his own: “There’s something about it. It’s a concerto that even though I haven’t done it with an orchestra, I have been playing it from my childhood age. I think the first time I learned part of it I was 9, 10 years old. Everyone knows the Grieg Concerto. It’s a moving piece with memorable melodies and lots of brilliance and fancy stuff going on. ... So the challenge with a piece like this that everyone knows and loves is how do I make it special and unique and make what I bring to Tucson memorable in its own way? If you just want to play like anyone else, I can tell people to listen to a recording. I want to make it my own thing. I’m trying to draw on what makes Grieg different from other composers for the piano that lived at that time. I’m thinking Liszt, and I remember reading that Liszt was impressed with this piece. ... The Grieg Concerto is different. There is something unique about it. It evokes this Norwegian sense of place and atmosphere. Lots of nature, landscape. In many ways it really feels larger than one person standing in the vast mix of nature and looking around and kind of taking it all in. These are the kinds of things floating in my mind.”
A prodigy lets his hair down: “Sometimes if it’s a really busy time of year — you’re not going to like this answer — I just stay home and sleep and watch Netflix. But if I’m rested and I have no pressure to hop on a plane the next day, I’ll go with my friends and have fun. I have a few close friends in probably enough cities in the world that if I were stranded somewhere I could call someone and go out and have a good time. I do all of the normal New York things that young people do.”
Arts in the family: Petersen’s younger brother Erik is studying drama at New York’s Fordham University. On Dec. 4 — Peterson’s 24 birthday — Erik will premiere a play in New York. Despite his brother urging him to go out with his friends on his birthday, Petersen said he plans to be in the audience on opening night.
CD release: Petersen will release his debut CD early next year.