According to the Yale Philharmonia principal conductor Peter Oundjian, pianist Sophiko Simsive MUS ’19 “really makes the piano sing.”

On Thursday at 7:30 p.m. in Woolsey Hall, Oundjian will lead the Philharmonia in a performance of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor featuring Simsive as soloist — an opportunity she earned as a winner of the 2018 Woolsey Hall Concerto Competition. The program will also include 19th-century German composer Richard Strauss’ visionary tone poem “Also sprach Zarathustra,” composed in 1896.

A piece that Oundjian describes as “innovative for its time,” the Brahms concerto features a “very unusual” time signature for the first two movements of the piece.

“[The Brahms] requires such intensity and virtuosity,” said Oundjian. “It is high drama.”

While the approximately 55-minute piano concerto requires musical stamina and physical strength, Oundjian said that Simsive has “incredible lyricism” and “immense power.”

The concerto begins with a dramatic orchestral opening before the soloist plays her first note. Oundjian remarked that the power at the beginning of the piece constitutes one of the most “frightening sounds [he] can imagine.” By contrast, Oundjian said that the “piano comes in so tender.”

“Winning this competition is extremely personal to me as I will be sharing the stage with my colleagues,” Simsive said. “I’ve played with many of them in chamber music, so playing this concerto with them feels just like playing chamber music at home with my close friends.”

Simsive thinks that the concerto “is like a symphony with solo piano” rather than a solo with orchestral accompaniment. Simsive approaches the piece as a reflection of her personal journey and life at Yale.

“In the concerto, the same themes are represented in different moods just like how we, as humans, experience similar life events differently over time — it keeps changing and moving forward,” she said. “If I would have to tell a story I would like the audience to know that the story I tell is describing my life at Yale.”

The second half of the concert will feature Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra.” The piece was inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical novel by the same name.

The famous love poem is separated into eight sections that outline the journey of Nietzsche’s main character, Zarathustra. Throughout these sections, Strauss aims to convey Nietzsche’s philosophical approach to God, humankind and existence in the natural world.

This story begins in Strauss’ piece with an ominous and anticipatory mood produced by instruments in the orchestra with deep registers. The trumpets then emerge from the texture with a fanfare played in unison, mimicking the emotion of optimism in spite of the vastness of the world. The opening fanfare repeats three times and increases in intensity with each iteration. The pattern breaks when the work ends in C major, a key that offers a sense of natural resolution and satisfaction.

Oundjian thinks that audience members will recognize this piece right from the opening. The first segment of the piece — titled “Sunrise” — gained recognition after its use in the 1968 hit movie “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

“It’s such a famous piece of music,” Oundjian said. “It’s so visceral and unbelievably beautiful.”

Oundjian believes Strauss’ work exemplifies “the beauty of sound” with “every kind of imagery.”

He added that the evening’s conclusion with the “eruptive” final passage of “Also sprach Zarathustra” will make for “fantastic entertainment.”

“The [talent of the Philharmonia] is reflected both in the Brahms, with Sophiko as the soloist, and the Strauss, with the multiple solo lines and the technical and orchestral difficulty of the section parts,” said cellist Harry Doernberg ’19. “I hope the audience takes away both the grandeur and story of each piece, as well as how the character of each aspect is reflected within each section of the respective works.”

Simsive currently studies with the Sylvia and Leonard Marx Professor in the Practice of Piano, Boris Berman.

Allison Park |