Freddy Kempf studies foreign languages — about 30 thus far — but can speak “only seven to nine of them fluently.” One non-verbal language in which he is absolutely eloquent is the piano.
Kempf will showcase his keyboard talents on Saturday, Oct. 27, when he appears as guest soloist with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO) at the Music Center at Strathmore.
The concert, part of the orchestra’s 2018-19 season, is a tribute to three Scandinavian composers. Both Kempf and guest conductor Rune Bergmann are making their debuts with the orchestra.
Kempf will play the “Piano Concerto in A Minor” by Edvard Grieg, considered Norway’s national composer. The concerto is among the more-popular pieces in the piano repertory. Also on the program are Jean Sibelius’ “Finlandia” and Carl Nielson’s Symphony No. 4, “The Inextinguishable.” Sibelius’ work celebrates Finland’s independence. The Nielson symphony is a portrait of war, with two tympani representing the opposing sides.
Playing a piece as well-known and beloved as the Grieg concerto might be a challenge. But, Kempf said, “I think almost every musician has a clear idea of how they would like each piece of music to sound. Luckily with instrumentalists, we all sound different and have our own strengths and weaknesses as well as likes and dislikes. I think this way, it’s relatively easy to prepare a popular work since we perform it in a way that both suits us and shows off our strengths”
“With a concerto,” he observed, “it’s always going to be fresh, as the soloist has their own idea of the work, whereas the conductor has the overall picture
Kempf also pointed out that works become famous because they are great to listen to. “I think this is so much so in the case of the Grieg; it is just a fantastic piano concerto. I love how passionate the Grieg is … how raw and direct Grieg is with his concerto. He writes places marked very softly in the score, and then, just a moment later, an extremely loud and forceful marking.”
The more well-known the piece, the more opinions both the orchestra and the audience will have about the kind of interpretation they expect, said Bergmann. “At the same time, I never think about it,” he added. “I learned from my father at a very young age to always play from the heart. To speak from the heart and keep the music honest and beautiful will always keep it fresh.
“The advantage with the Grieg is also that the orchestra has played it many times and knows it well. That makes for an even deeper communication between the orchestra and the conductor if they enjoy a fresh interpretation.”
Putting together a program with an orchestra is “always interesting,” Bergmann said. “It depends on many different things that we always have to keep in mind. It could be the availability of a special soloist, season, size of orchestra, venue, etc. As a guest conductor, you have to work closely with the organization to find the perfect fit for the occasion.”
For this concert, Bergmann and the orchestra went through many different scenarios. “But we ended up with something that would make perfect sense in many ways. A Scandinavian program of Sibelius, Grieg and Nielsen is, of course, something that orchestras don’t play often, and with my background as a Norwegian and a student of the Sibelius Academy in Finland, we figured out that this would be a nice fit for our first meeting.
The sheet music, Bergmann said, is “just the beginning and a map; the real magic happens when the orchestra and conductor have the same flow and direction. I really love all these pieces, and I am sure we will find a very nice interpretation together.”
Both pianist and conductor have performed around the world. A highlight of Kempf’s career, he said, was his recent debut in Moscow, play-directing Handel and Beethoven concerti from the piano, as well as conducting Haydn (symphony and oboe concerto) in the same concert.
For his part, Bergmann mentioned an appearance with world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma. “I love the fact that he doesn’t play the instrument, but he is the instrument,” the conductor said. “I could talk a lot about all the things he does well, but I will never forget the feeling when we performed the Dvorak cello concerto, and I knew exactly what he wanted and what kind of direction he would take many bars before it happened.
“He has a way of reading your mind and, at the same time, bringing you the information you need as a conductor to make everything sound great.”
Kempf and Bergmann expressed enthusiasm about appearing with the BSO for the first time. “I’m very excited to be performing here, especially with the Grieg concerto and with Rune, a very good friend,” said Kempf. “The BSO is one of the world’s greatest orchestras.”
The BSO’s “Scandinavia” concert will begin at 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 27, at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. Tickets, ranging from $35 to $90, may be purchased through the BSO Strathmore Box Office 1-877-BSO-1444. For information, visit www.bsomusic.org.