It’s been barely two years since Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov stunned the music world by winning the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition in Tel Aviv and the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow. Trifonov, who will debut Saturday with the Philadelphia Orchestra in its final concert of the season at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, is only 22.
“In the two years since I won, it’s been very challenging,” Trifonov said in early June from Moscow. “I hadn’t usually played so many concerts before.”
Although so many orchestras, so little time could be his mantra these days, Trifonov has always had his eye on the gold prize. He began piano at age 5 and by his teens he was studying at the Moscow Gnesin School of Music with classes in piano, composition, chamber and orchestral music. He also attended as many orchestra concerts as possible, which is how he heard the Philadelphia Orchestra on its tour of Russia in the early 2000s.
“It was a fantastic experience to hear a foreign orchestra” he said.
Inspiration from past
Trifonov looked to the past for inspiration at the keyboard.
Daniil Trifonov and the Philadelphia Orchestra
WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Saratoga Performing Arts Center
HOW MUCH: $80-$32. Lawn: $24. Kids 12 and under, free. Students, 25 percent discount.
MORE INFO: 584-0330; www.spac.org
“Early on I explored recordings of Josef Hoffman (Polish piano prodigy 1876-1957) and Vladimir Horowitz,” he said. “But Rachmaninoff’s incredible sense of timing . . . no one understands the language or the inner freedom of his own piece like the composer.”
At 17, Trifonov won awards at Moscow’s Scriabin Competition, the San Marino International Competition in Italy and received a grant from the Guzik Foundation that allowed him to tour Italy and the United States. Visiting this country is part of the reason he was inspired to come to study here.
“My Moscow teacher [Tatiana Zelikman] recommended Sergei Babayan at the Cleveland Institute of Music,” he said. “I never met him before my first lesson but I’d heard fabulous things about him. He was from the same line of teachers as Emil Gilels.” (Gilels, who taught at the Moscow Conservatory, was considered an extraordinary powerhouse of a performer from the 1950s until his death in 1985.)
It was 2009 and Trifonov was 18. At 19, he placed third at the Chopin International Competition in Warsaw where he also won a prize for playing the best mazurka. As all competitors were allowed to talk to the judges to get their comments, Trifonov sought out Martha Argerich, one of today’s preeminent interpreters of Chopin, who has since given glowing comments about Trifonov’s skills.
“It was such an honor to meet her,” he said.
The next year was the career maker. He not only won the gold prize at the Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky competitions, he captured both the grand prize, which is given for being the best pianist overall in the entire competition, and the audience favorite prize. Additionally, he won at the Rubinstein the best chamber and best Chopin prizes, and at the Tchaikovsky the best Mozart Concerto.
“I’d always tried to do my best during the rounds,” he said. “But it was a great emotion to hear my name called.”
With critics and colleagues now calling his playing scintillating, charismatic, flawless, fierce but tender and a host of other accolades, Trifonov must keep up.
“It’s important for me to learn new pieces,” he said. “I’ve had to sacrifice some of my free time, what I had before. But I’ve gotten used to it.”
In fact, that includes the work he’ll play on Saturday: Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto. It is also his Philadelphia Orchestra debut.
“I’ve played his third concerto and his ‘Paganini Variations.’ But I’m actually working on his second as we speak. The Saturday performance will be my first time performing it.”
As background, Trifonov listened to a recording of Rachmaninoff playing the concerto. He said he’ll follow the composer’s dictum: each pianist should infuse his own personality into the music.
“So there may be some things different,” he said. “It will be a very special experience for me to play the piece with such a great orchestra.”
Back to cleveland
Although the international scene and the travel is still so new that he said it all still excites him, especially meeting new audiences and seeing new places, he tries whenever he can to grab a few days to either visit family in Moscow or head to Cleveland.
“Whenever I have free time, I go to Cleveland and play for my teacher,” Trifonov said. “Cleveland is a good place to concentrate.”
The concert is part of the annual Tchaikovsky Spectacular. The program will include the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s opera “Eugene Onegin,” his “1812 Overture” and Borodin’s “Polovetsian Dances” from “Prince Igor.” Cristian Macelaru will conduct. Fireworks will follow the concert.