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Pianomania! Pianists at The Cleveland Orchestra

Since its founding in 1918, nearly 600 pianists have performed with The Cleveland Orchestra. It is the most prevalent choice for concerto instrument on Cleveland Orchestra programs, and the range of these programs and the artists who performed them demonstrates the richness of musical life that The Cleveland Orchestra has come to represent. Let’s take a look at the numbers!

The Music

Looking back over the Orchestra’s history, here are the top ten piano concertos performed:

  1. Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 (145 performances), tied with:
  2. Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 (also 145) (by comparison, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2 has only been played fifteen times!)
  3. Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5, “Emperor”  (138)
  4. Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 (120)
  5. Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 (112)
  6. Schumann Piano Concerto (109)
  7. Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3 (106), tied with:
  8. Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 (106)
  9. Grieg Piano Concerto (88)
  10. Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue (86)

The dates of these performances also tell us much about the relative popularity of a piece at a given time. For example, the Grieg Piano Concerto was ubiquitous during midcentury—it was performed in fifteen out of twenty seasons between 1941 and 1962 (in one season, it was even programmed twice!). However, it has only been performed four times in the past twenty years.

While many of The Cleveland Orchestra’s concerts starring the piano as a solo instrument feature tried-and-true gems of the piano concerto repertoire, the Orchestra is no stranger to exploring new terrain in the relationship between piano and orchestra. The Orchestra has given the world or United States premiere of nineteen pieces that feature the piano, several of which were commissioned by the Orchestra. Here are some highlights, in chronological order:

  1. Karol Szymanowski, Symphony No. 4, Piano (Symphonie concertante) (November 2, 1933; US Premiere. Severin Eisenberger, piano; Artur Rodziński, conductor)
  2. Paul Hindemith, Piano Concerto (February 27, 1947; World Premiere. Jesus Sanroma, piano; George Szell, conductor)
  3. Shulamit Ran, Concert Piece (October 10, 1991; US Premiere. Alan Feinberg, piano; Christoph von Dohnányi, conductor)
  4. Olivier Messiaen, Concert à quatre (March 30, 1995; US Premiere. Joela Jones, piano; Myung-Whun Chung, conductor)
  5. John Adams, Century Rolls (September 25, 1997; World Premiere and TCO Commission. Emanuel Ax, piano; Christoph von Dohnányi, conductor)
  6. Charles Ives, Emerson Overture(October 1, 1998; World Premiere and TCO Commission. Alan Feinberg, piano; Christoph von Dohnányi, conductor)
  7. Hans Werner Henze, Requiem: Nine Sacred Concertos(September 21, 2000; US Premiere. Joela Jones, piano; Christoph von Dohnányi, conductor)
  8. George Benjamin, Duet for Piano and Orchestra (World Premiere in Lucerne, Switzerland on August 30, 2008; US Premiere at Severance Hall on September 25, 2008. Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano; Franz Welser- Möst, conductor)

Take a listen to one of these pieces, John Adams’ Century Rolls, a work that was commissioned by The Cleveland Orchestra. Here is an excerpt of the first movement at its world premiere:

The Performers

While there are hundreds of pianists who have appeared with the Orchestra, some came back numerous times over their careers. Here are the ten pianists who have given the most performances with The Cleveland Orchestra:

  1. Mitsuko Uchida (114 performances)
  2. Eunice Podis (104)
  3. John Browning (99)
  4. Emanuel Ax (89)
  5. Rudolf Serkin (88)
  6. Robert Casadesus (77)
  7. Leon Fleisher (76)
  8. Rudolf Firkusny (72)
  9. Yefim Bronfman (59)
  10. Radu Lupu (58)

N.B: this survey only included guest artists. The undisputed queen of appearances with The Cleveland Orchestra would have to be the Orchestra’s own principal keyboardist Joela Jones, who has clocked in nearly 300 concerts as a soloist with the Orchestra. Jones made her first appearance with the Orchestra in 1966, and became an official member in 1968.

Pianist Leon Fleisher and conductor George Szell acknowledge the Orchestra after a performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major in January 1959. Photo by Don Hunstein.

For many artists, the line between composer and performer is blurry. Numerous composers have also performed as piano soloist with the Orchestra (or are more famous as pianists), including:

  1. Sergei Rachmaninoff (appeared many times between 1923 and 1942)
  2. Ottorino Respighi (appeared in 1927 and 1929)
  3. Béla Bartók (1940)
  4. Victor Babin (many times between 1957 and 1969)
  5. Sergei Prokofiev (1930)
  6. Percy Grainger (1924, 1928, and 1942)
  7. Lukas Foss (1958)
  8. Robert Casadesus (many times between 1948 and 1971)
  9. Peter Schickele (many times between 1971 and 1997)
Rachmaninoff is greeted by conductor Nikolai Sokoloff and founder of The Cleveland Orchestra Adella Prentiss Hughes on the occasion of his visit in March 1923. From left to right:  Nikolai Sokoloff, Mrs. Natalya Rachmaninoff, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Adella Prentiss Hughes and Mrs. Lydia Sokoloff. Photo by The Crosbys, Cleveland, OH.

Many accomplished conductors are also excellent pianists, as evidenced by the number of artists who have appeared with the Orchestra at various times conducting or as a piano soloist:

  1. Louis Lane
  2. Daniel Barenboim
  3. Michael Charry
  4. James Levine
  5. Christoph Eschenbach
  6. Erich Leinsdorf
  7. Jahja Ling
  8. Leonard Slatkin

When Mitsuko Uchida comes to perform with the Orchestra on April 6-8, she will be both conductor and soloist in Mozart’s Piano Concertos Nos. 12 and 20. The second of these is the most popular Mozart concerto to play with the Orchestra, tied with Mozart’s No. 25 (46 performances each). This will be her twenty-thirdseason performing with the Orchestra, going back to her first performances in 1990. Don’t miss this one!

-Sophie Benn
Sophie Benn is an intern this season with The Cleveland Orchestra Archives. She is a PhD student in Musicology at Case Western Reserve University.
Except as noted, all photographs and recordings courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra Archives.