On April 10, 11, and 12 British piano virtuoso Paul Lewis makes his long-awaited New York Philharmonic debut playing the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 under Christoph von Dohnšnyi, part of a lush program that includes Schumann's Symphony No. 2. The pianist created a buzz during his Mostly Mozart debut last year when he performed both in Avery Fisher Hall and in the more intimate setting of the Kaplan Penthouse on the same evening.
The British-born Lewis is considered among the greatest classicists of his generation. He established those credentials with acclaimed performances and recordings (on Harmonia Mundi) of the complete Beethoven sonatas, concertos, and Diabelli variations : he even had the honor of being the first pianist to perform the five Beethoven concertos in a single BBC Proms season. As today's leading Schubertian, he undertook a two-year, worldwide project in which he performed all of Schubert's late piano works.
Therefore, Brahms may seem a curious choice for his Philharmonic debut. "I played the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 for the first time last year, although it's one of those pieces that I've loved since I was nine years old," says Lewis. He explains that it was because he was waiting for "the perfect conductor and orchestra. Dohnšnyi certainly embodies that, and I'm so very excited about playing a Romantic period piece with the New York Philharmonic. I am going to have to be thinking very seriously about the sound I make from the piano; I will have to try to step up to this Orchestra's sound. I love that kind of challenge."
Paul Lewis grew up in Liverpool, and was encouraged to study classical music by his dock-worker father and council worker mother after he discovered it as an eight-year-old on a school trip to the public library. "My parents were very supportive of my work in music," says Lewis, "but they didn't push me, simply because they didn't know anything about it. I'm grateful because I could discover music in my own way. I'm a great believer in doing things at the right time : like my waiting years to play the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1."
By age 14 Lewis was accepted to the Chethams School of Music in Manchester and at age 18, in 1993, London's famed Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He was runner-up in the London International Piano Competition, and at 20 he met the great pianist Alfred Brendel, who would become one of his most important professional infl uences. "I played to him," remembers Lewis, "when he was giving a master class at Guildhall. He said, 'Let's keep in touch,' and I started going to his house in Hampstead every year. It was such a privilege to work with him." Lewis continues, "The library that fed my love of music when I was a child had all of Alfred's recordings on the Vox-Turnabout label, so I came to be mentored by the fi rst pianist whose sound I had gotten to know."
Having passed on the child prodigy route in favor of a longer, more contemplative one has given Lewis's playing a depth and intelligence that allow him to coax myriad sounds from the piano, making the instrument a means to an end for the sake of the composition. He confi des, "If I had been the kind of pianist who had suddenly had a schedule of one hundred concerts per year in my teens and twenties, I think it would have killed me." He and his wife, cellist Bjêªrg Lewis (with whom he runs an annual chamber music festival), agree that their three children : a cellist and two violinists, ages six, seven, and nine : should follow their father's more relaxed path toward musical study. "Our aim is to have them make friends with music, not to push them into a career in music because that is what their parents happen to do for a living," he laughs.
Although he is a regular guest at major concert and festival venues, and his recordings are coming to be known as benchmarks of the repertoire, Lewis is keenly aware that he has mountains left to climb. In fact, he has eschewed music of his time. "I'm quite cautious about it," he admits, "because I need time to get into something and I'd feel worried about preparing a new piece in a relatively short amount of time." But the little boy who discovered music on a trip to the library won't completely rule out the idea. "I must get over my insecurities since there are some really interesting composers around."
Paul Lewis comes to us with just the right balance of youthful enthusiasm and intelligent maturity to be conscious of how his career has changed him. "The traveling aspect of this business certainly opens the mind; it's an opportunity to absorb other cultures and learn tolerance and respect all while you are dealing with some of the greatest minds history has produced. And," he continues, "it has taught me that nothing is ever perfect; perfection is something to which one aspires : one should take the performance as far as one can." And, he says pointedly, "as long as you can give your audience an experience : that is essential."
Robin Tabachnik is a New York _based arts and culture journalist who writes frequently for Playbill, Town & Country, and IN New York magazine.