Interview by Emmet Sullivan
Daniil Trifonov was a celebrity before he could even drive. The Russian pianist played Carnegie Hall at age 18 and won the prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition just two years later. Here, the 21-year-old wunderkind talks shop before his CSO performance on November 14.
You’re a very young concert pianist. What’s the pressure like?
Well, there is pressure, but if there is love for what you’re doing, it shouldn’t bring up stress.
When did you start playing?
My parents are musicians [dad Oleg is a composer; mom Marina teaches music theory], and I was exposed to various forms of music early. When I was five, my parents saw me composing some melodies at home, so they decided to bring me to Gnessin [the famed music school in Moscow].
Where are you now?
I’ve been at Cleveland [Institute of Music] for three years now. The biggest reason I’m here is my teacher, Sergei Babayan, one of the best piano teachers in history. [Trifonov is studying piano as an undergraduate.]
You’ll be playing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in Chicago. Why that piece?
Despite the times I’ve played it, there are always new discoveries. The first movement conveys so many emotional problems. Tchaikovsky had a very tragic life, and that first movement can be played as a conversation with a spirit, asking life’s questions to God. There is a moment where there’s a lot of piano, then sharp, short chords of orchestra. That’s a sign of a duel in [Tchaikovsky’s opera] Eugene Onegin, with C-minor chords like shots of a revolver. In this piece, it’s a duel between death and life, and this tension over the last seconds of life. This movement has such a complex structure. It’s the most interestingly built.
Swiss maestro Charles Dutoit will be conducting. What’s he like to work with?
He’s wonderful for a soloist. I worked with him in Switzerland, playing Rachmaninoff’s No. 3 for the first time. He’s very attentive to performers.
You’ve accomplished a lot so young. What’s next?
I want to learn a complete Rachmaninoff concerto. I adore Rachmaninoff’s work. In terms of skill development, that’s the next step for me. Rachmaninoff is a challenge.
Photograph: Courtesy of Opus 3 Artists