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Pianist Daniil Trifonov more than just a set of nimble fingers

| Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, 9:00 p.m.
Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov
Dario Acosta | DG
Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov

For all that's wrong with music competitions, including the excessive pressure and focus on technique, sometimes they do live up to their purpose by calling attention to extraordinary talents.

Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov was 20 when he won the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow and the Rubinstein Competition in Tel Aviv in 2011. Pittsburgh music lovers heard his stupendous talent in February 2013 when he played Sergei Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

But it turns out his first musical impulse was to create, not play.

Trifonov will return to Pittsburgh to open the symphony's season of BNY Mellon Grand Classics by playing music he composed, with Manfred Honeck conducting, at concerts Sept. 18 and 20 at Heinz Hall, Downtown. The program is Felix Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 4 (“Italian”), Trifonov's Piano Concerto and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's “Capriccio Italien.”

The Pittsburgh Symphony has lowered its tickets prices from top to bottom at the start of this season.

Trifonov wrote the concerto in 2013-14 on commission from the Cleveland Institute of Music, where he studied piano and composition. He gave the world premiere April 23, 2014, with the institute's orchestra conducted by Joel Smirnoff, the school's president and former first violin of the Juilliard Quartet.

The commission was part of Smirnoff's effort to encourage students to compose and perform. Trifonov is the first of five composer-performers the symphony is featuring this season in place of the “composer of the year” program.

His concerto is in the traditional three movements and runs about 40 minutes.

Trifonov was born in Russia in a musical home. His mother taught music theory. His father wrote music at the keyboard — rock, before turning to classical style for Russian Orthodox Church music.

“I didn't pay interest in it until I was about 5 years old,” Trifonov says. “It wasn't even a piano. It was a synthesizer, which my father was using since he was also a composer. When I experimented with how it worked, I was fascinated touching the same key and a couple of different buttons produced a completely different sound.”

After improvising at his father's keyboard for about a half year, he began taking piano lessons.

When his family moved to Moscow, where he studied at the prestigious Gnessen Academy, Trifonov found himself with no time for composition, partly because getting to school took 1½ hours each way and also because of the “incredible demands” of practice time.

Trifonov's first favorite composer was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, “not only for the beauty and simplicity of expression, but at the same time the never-ending line of storytelling — one motif being followed by another with complete effortlessness.”

A few years later, Trifonov's enthusiasm was for Frederic Chopin for his harmonic language, subtlety and flexibility of phrasing and the generally chromatic nature of melody and harmony.

At 12, his favorite orchestral piece was Alexander Scriabin's “Poem of Ecstasy.” Before long, he was preparing Scriabin's piano music, with its “incredible harmonic language” to play at competitions.

He has other favorites. He's recorded Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 with Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra and Sergei Rachmaninoff's “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” with Yannick Nezet-Sequin and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Trifonov will return to Pittsburgh to play Franz Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1 with Honeck and the orchestra in early May, and he will play it on the orchestra' European tour.

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or

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