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Key Contributors: Pianists in Minnesota Orchestra History

Key Contributors: Pianists in Minnesota Orchestra History

The piano is among the most versatile acoustic instruments, offering an unparalleled range of pitches in its 88 black-and-white keys with a sound that can easily fill a large concert hall, playing a vast repertoire of music tailored to players of all ages. The instrument’s populist appeal is evident locally in the “Pianos on Parade” program that placed custom-painted pianos throughout downtown Minneapolis for the public to play during pre-pandemic summers.

During its 118-year history, the Minnesota Orchestra has performed with hundreds of accomplished pianists, including famous talents such as Martha Argerich, Emanuel Ax, Alfred Brendel, Van Cliburn, Glenn Gould, Dame Myra Hess, Vladimir Horowitz, Barbara Nissman, Garrick Ohlsson and Sergei Rachmaninoff. Several members of the Orchestra’s conducting ranks, including Dimitri Mitropoulos, Sarah Hicks and Andrew Litton, have also taken turns at the keyboard. Today we look at a sampling of pianists from throughout the Orchestra’s history.

Pianists through the years

On December 1, 1903, Harold Bauer became the first piano soloist ever to perform with the Minnesota Orchestra, then known as the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. Appearing in the Orchestra’s second-ever concert, the English-born pianist performed Saint-Saëns’ Second Piano Concerto. The following month, German composer-pianist Adele Aus Der Ohe became the first woman to perform as a piano soloist with the Orchestra—as well as the first soloist to play an original composition at an Orchestra concert, her Eine Sage (A Legend).

Groundbreaking American composer-pianist Amy Beach made her sole appearance with the Orchestra on December 14, 1917, when Emil Oberhoffer conducted her Gaelic Symphony and Beach took the stage as soloist in her Piano Concerto. The composer-pianist was billed in the program as “Mrs. H. H. A. Beach,” and her music did not appear on another Minnesota Orchestra program for more than a century, until the Gaelic Symphony was the centerpiece of an Inside the Classics concert in April 2019.

The program page from the December 1917 concert featuring Amy Beach.

Minneapolis native Eunice Norton was the first piano soloist to be featured on a Minnesota Orchestra recording. On January 15, 1935, she was the soloist in a recording of Arthur Honegger’s Concertino for Piano and Orchestra, with Eugene Ormandy conducting, released on the RCA Victor label. Norton’s performance found a new life decades later when the Honegger work was included in the Orchestra’s Centennial CD set in 2003.

On November 16, 1946, the Orchestra recorded Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto with famed pianist Arthur Rubinstein—a session that got off to a poor start after Rubinstein encountered difficulty hailing a taxi from his hotel to the recording site, Northrop Auditorium, before finally sharing a cab with fans headed to that day’s University of Minnesota vs. Iowa football game. Furthermore, noise from airplane traffic above the nearby football stadium was spoiling the Orchestra’s recording. A special call was made to the airport and air traffic was rerouted.

Arthur Rubinstein recording Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto with the Orchestra in 1946.

André Watts captured international attention in January 1963 when, at age 17, he made his New York Philharmonic debut, subbing for an ill Glenn Gould in a performance of Liszt’s First Piano Concerto conducted by Leonard Bernstein. A year later, on January 31, 1964, Watts made his first appearance with the Minnesota Orchestra, playing the same Liszt concerto under Vladimir Golschmann’s direction. Watts has since enjoyed one of the longest-running relationships between the Minnesota Orchestra and a piano soloist, appearing most recently in a July 2017 concert with Andrew Litton conducting.

André Watts’ debut with the Minnesota Orchestra in January 1964.

Among the more audacious concepts in the early years of the Minnesota Orchestra’s Sommerfest, which was founded in 1980, were the Grand Piano Extravaganzas masterminded by then-Sommerfest Artistic Director Leonard Slatkin, who is a pianist himself. Featuring as many as ten pianos onstage at once, the concerts will long be remembered by audiences and stagehands alike. Future summer innovations are sure to come from the mind and hands of pianist Jon Kimura Parker, a longtime friend of the Minnesota Orchestra, who in fall 2019 became the first-ever creative partner for the Orchestra’s summer season—now called Summer at Orchestra Hall and awaiting its debut post-pandemic.

The 1986 Sommerfest Grand Piano Extravaganza featured five pianos side-by-side.

During Osmo Vänskä’s tenure as Minnesota Orchestra music director, the Orchestra has made acclaimed recordings with two pianists: Stephen Hough and Yevgeny Sudbin. With Hough, the Orchestra made a live-in-concert recording of Tchaikovsky’s three piano concertos and Concert Fantasia over a series of four concerts in 2009 for the Hyperion label. Sudbin’s recordings of Beethoven’s Piano Concertos No. 3, 4 and 5, plus Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24, spanned the years 2009 to 2012 and were released on the BIS Records label.

Osmo Vänskä and Yevgeny Sudbin onstage at Orchestra Hall.

Pianists from or living in Minnesota play a vital role in numerous Minnesota Orchestra concerts in solo, chamber or ensemble roles. University of Minnesota Professor Emerita Lydia Artymiw and her former student Andrew Staupe, a native of St. Paul, have each performed several concertos with the Orchestra, including joint performances of Mozart’s Double Piano Concerto in January 2011. Local pianists who perform often with the Orchestra in chamber or ensemble roles include Susan Billmeyer—who was the Orchestra’s pianist on the 2015 Cuba tour and was prominently featured in a Sommerfest 2019 program centered around Clara Schumann—Tommy Barbarella, Dean Billmeyer, Mary Jo Gothmann, Mary Louise Knutson, Timothy Lovelace, Bryan Nichols, Gail Olszewski and Casey Rafn.

Lydia Artymiw performing Felix Mendelssohn’s Concerto for Violin and Piano alongside then-Assistant Concertmaster Stephanie Arado with the Orchestra in October 2006.


For the next chapter in the Minnesota Orchestra’s history with pianists, tune in to the Orchestra’s next concert on Friday, March 19, at 8 p.m. Central, as Jean-Yves Thibaudet performs Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major. Tune in for free on Twin Cities PBS (TPT), Classical Minnesota Public Radio and streaming online. Photo at top: Stephen Hough performing with the Minnesota Orchestra and Osmo Vänskä at Carnegie Hall in October 2011. Photo by Stephanie Berger.

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