Grieg's oft-heard piano concerto was popular right away

George Bulanda
Special to The Detroit News

If familiarity breeds contempt, then the Grieg "Piano Concerto in A Minor" should be positively despised.

But oddly, the work is far more loved than loathed.

It's been a staple in the classical repertoire since its premiere in 1869 and is frequently heard on radio and in concert halls. Pianists from Sviatoslav Richter to Leif Ove Andsnes have recorded it. There was even Kokomo's 1961 pop version of the first movement called "Asia Minor," featuring a honky-tonk piano and pared-down orchestra.

The Grieg also has the distinction of being the first piano concerto to be recorded (in 1909), though the crude technology of the day dictated it had to be severely truncated.

That's a lot of exposure, but audiences don't seem to tire of this rugged warhorse.

Nor do pianists. In fact, beginning Thursday night, Andrew von Oeyen will be playing the concerto in four consecutive concerts at four venues as part of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's Davidson Neighborhood Concert Series. It will be sandwiched between Beethoven's "Coriolan" Overture and Dvorak's "Symphony No. 8." Brazilian conductor Marcelo Lehninger will be at the helm.

Some piano concertos pose particular technical or rhythmic difficulties, but von Oeyen, 35, says the Grieg concerto's familiarity is its strongest hurdle for him.

"The biggest challenge is making it sound original and spontaneous because it's so oft-performed and everyone knows it so well," he says from his home in Paris.

"One thing I don't do is listen to recordings of it, because I think that hampers my creativity," he adds.

Von Oeyen learned the Grieg Concerto when he was 16, but he says he was familiar with it long before he studied it.

"I feel that I've lived with the piece my whole life," he says. But the work hasn't grown shopworn with him.

"I think it's a miniature masterpiece," he says. "It's very dramatic, from the very opening passage. The themes have such a strong appeal because they're so memorable. It's one of those pieces, not unlike the Tchaikovsky First and the Rachmaninov Second, that's extremely memorable. You hear it once and you never forget it."

From the opening timpani roll, followed by the descending cascade of notes from the piano, Grieg grabs you by the collar. The dramatic first movement is followed by a tender middle movement and concludes with a lively final movement laced with Norwegian folk tunes.

After the first performance in Copenhagen, Grieg knew he had a hit on his hands, even snagging a compliment from Franz Liszt.

However, Grieg, who was only 25 when the work debuted, never wrote another concerto. He tinkered with another, but only sketches remain.

"Maybe he thought it was so great that he couldn't top it," von Oeyen surmises. "Schumann also wrote only one piano concerto, and Dvorak wrote only one cello concerto. It could be that they thought they couldn't do better if they tried a second one."

Von Oeyen is a familiar face in these parts. He last played with the DSO in 2012 and also performed a great solo concert in 2013 with the Cranbrook Music Guild.

The pianist was born in Detroit, but his family moved to California when von Oeyen was just 1. However, he still has ties to the area.

"I have relatives in Detroit and they will be attending these concerts," he says. "Mark my word!"

George Bulanda is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.

Andrew von Oeyen with the DSO

Thursday at 7:30 at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield; Friday at 8 p.m. at the Macomb Center for the Performing Arts in Clinton Township; 8 p.m. Saturday at Clarkston High School; and 3 p.m. at the Seligman Performing Arts Center in Beverly Hills.

Tickets: $25 general admission.