Peter Serkin freely acknowledges the challenges he faced as a pianist emerging from the shadow of his famous father, the keyboard titan Rudolf Serkin. Yet now, at 64, he is a musical elder statesman in his own right, having embraced many of the same composers his father revered — Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms — while also forging a distinct path in modern music.
This latter interest gets a showcase at the Kennedy Center from Thursday through Saturday, when Serkin appears with the National Symphony Orchestra in performances of Olivier Messiaen’s “Le Reveil des Oiseaux” and George Benjamin’s “Duet.” Composer Oliver Knussen, the pianist’s good friend, conducts the program, which also features Sean Shepherd’s recent “Wanderlust” and Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite.”
Part of the program’s excitement comes from Serkin’s never having performed these works before. “It’s an adventure,” he said by phone recently from his home in Richmond, Mass. “I’ve played quite a few works by Messiaen, but this one I never thought I’d be keen to play, because there’s so little counterpoint.”
Among Messiaen’s trademarks as a composer was his love of birdsong, which he integrated into many of his best-known works. But “Le Reveil des Oiseaux,” written in 1953 and revised in 1988, was the first of these — and the only one to rely exclusively on those sounds as it charts avian life from midnight to noon.
“We don’t get the Indian and Greek rhythms of Messiaen’s ‘Oiseaux Exotiques’ or the later wild pieces,” Serkin said. “But it’s still difficult to play, because the birds are so brilliant, and it’s hard to match that on the piano. These birds are virtuosos, so I’m practicing quite a bit to prepare. It’s also very much in the piano’s upper register and poses a problem for one’s posture. I’m not really sure where to sit.”
Serkin, who last appeared with the National Symphony in 2005, has less of an association with the work of Benjamin, a London-born composer who was a prized pupil of Messiaen’s. Benjamin wrote “Duet” in 2008 for pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard and the Cleveland Orchestra. Ostensibly a piano concerto, it’s just 12 minutes long and written for an orchestra without violins.
“I found it very difficult to write,” Benjamin said. “When you put a piano next to an orchestra, it’s revealed as a percussive instrument. So you have to find a middle ground. I tried to make the orchestra sound like a piano and the piano sound like an orchestra, with the two meeting in the middle. The piano writing is quite melodic and, apart from the beginning and the end, almost non-virtuosic. But by the end, the piano is leaping all over.”
The pianist credits Knussen with suggesting the two works. “I trust Olly,” Serkin said. “But I love both composers, so he didn’t have to convince me. Besides, I love playing with Olly in general. There’s a plan for him to write a piece for piano and orchestra for me later this season. I’ve played many of his solo pieces and was hoping for a work for piano and orchestra for quite a while.”
If the pianist’s father, Rudolf, dead 20 years now, no longer looms as he once did, he is by no means forgotten. “Both musically and personally, my dad is still a very strong presence in my life and always will be,” Serkin said. “In some ways, my studying with him rubbed off on me. There was a certain scholarship on his part that impressed me. He was a stickler for all kinds of details in the text, which I admire. My dad gave me a certain conscience in that regard, to be mindful of a composer’s intentions.”
Serkin has long been the beneficiary of works written specifically for him. Beyond Knussen, such esteemed composers as Toru Takemitsu, Peter Lieberson, Alexander Goehr, Elliott Carter and Charles Wuorinen have dedicated pieces to him. In recent years, the collaboration with Wuorinen has been particularly fruitful, resulting in major works for piano and orchestra and piano and string quartet. “I think he’s written eight or nine pieces for me,” Serkin said. “And I’ve played others as well. In recital programs, I try to include Wuorinen. He’s written a new adagio for me, which I’ll play at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan in December.”
Not surprisingly, Wuorinen has only praise for the pianist. “First, there’s his complete mastery of the instrument,” the composer said. “It’s hard to imagine something that would be technically impossible for him. Then, more than anything else, I’m constantly impressed with his capacity to phrase. He’s the equal of anyone. In fact, I don’t know anyone who can do it that well. And there’s the sheer sound — clear as can be — yet he can also play extremely percussively. But the hallmark of his musicianship is the expressive capacity.”
Serkin roots his championing of newer composers in a belief that even the greatest of them may not be receiving their due. “Just because there’s a reputation doesn’t mean their works are getting heard,” Serkin said. “We hear the classics so often — and that can be welcome, when they’re played as if they were new — but it would benefit new pieces greatly if we heard them more often. Which is not to say that this music is so obscure and difficult that one can’t get much out of it on first hearing. When there’s goodwill, attentiveness and curiosity on the part of the audience, something strong can be conveyed. But it becomes deeper and more interesting on further hearings.”
For various reasons the pianist has not forged relationships with emerging composers lately. “I don’t get to hear as much now that I live in the country,” he explained. “And I don’t like to join in on fads. I’ve heard things I liked, but not that I’ve been really enamored of. But I’m always curious about new music — I don’t want to become too old-fashioned.”
Mermelstein is a freelance writer.
Peter Serkin will perform with the National Symphony Orchestra led by Oliver Knussen Thursday through Saturday. $20-$85. For more information, go to www.kennedy-center.org/nso.