Pianist Horacio Gutiérrez has performed in Chautauqua four times, but two of those stand out in his mind. His 2008 performance immediately followed a bout of lymphoma. His 2011 performance was the first his wife attended after she was struck by a bus in Miami. Thankfully, Gutiérrez said the circumstances for his return 8:15 p.m. tonight in the Amphitheater are decidedly mundane.
“I am happy to report there is nothing bad going on now,” he said.
Performing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58, Gutiérrez balances out Alexander Borodin’s “In the Steppes of Central Asia” and Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, Op. 100.
The Cuban-American soloist comes to Chautauqua as one of today’s pre-eminent concert pianists. A Grammy Award nominee and Emmy Award winner, he maintains an active solo career with orchestras around the world while teaching at the Manhattan School of Music in New York City.
Although he travels with a chosen piano for select performances along the East Coast, Gutiérrez performs tonight on one of Chautauqua Institution’s own Steinway pianos — a perennial challenge for concert pianists, he said.
In fact, Gutiérrez draws comparison between piano performance and the recent “Deflategate” controversy embroiling New England Patriot’s quarterback Tom Brady. As a concert pianist, the idea of standardized, regulated equipment is a pipe dream — when he shows up to perform, he must execute on whatever piano is there regardless of how well-maintained or idiosyncratic the instrument may be.
“I thought to myself it’s funny because you would think that a football is a football,” he said. “People think the same about the piano — if it’s a piano, it’s a piano. But actually, a piano is like a child or like a person. It needs attention and care to perform at its best.”
But there is no equivalent to the National Football League to monitor piano quality, which leaves it to the player to compensate. That task can be especially difficult in outdoor conditions where weather interferes, he said. All he can do is try his best to faithfully represent the work in question, Gutiérrez said.
“A love for the music and the want to make that piece of music as beautiful and as meaningful as possible — that is the beginning and the end of a career in music,” he said.
As far as the Beethoven he will share tonight, Gutiérrez was bursting with uncharacteristic praise.
“Lists and ‘best’ and ‘greatest’ are not worth one’s use, especially when one gets older, because you see the variety and the great richness of the music and the piano repertoire,” he said. “But if I had to pick a concerto that I really think is the greatest concerto ever written for piano and orchestra, it has to be this.”
The entire piece, he said, shouts with superlative inspiration, even for Beethoven. Throughout all three movements, he said the energy never lets up; the second movement in particular has conjured numerous images in the minds of listeners.
“You can say it’s Christ on the cross, you can say it’s Orpheus taming the furies, but whatever it is to you, you don’t just think it’s a little love song,” he said.
Gutiérrez said Chautauqua entered his life as a treat to follow times of great pain, which earned it a favored place in his heart. Sharing this special work with this special audience ensures that Gutiérrez’s fifth visit to Chautauqua is no less memorable than the previous four.
“As someone once said, when Mahler cries, he cries for himself,” he said. “When Beethoven cries, he cries for humanity.”