Not just a philharmonic residency: Daniil Trifonov is a New Yorker

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Not just a philharmonic residency: Daniil Trifonov is a New Yorker
Pianist Daniil Trifonov enjoys lunch at Los Tacos No. 1 inside Chelsea market in New York, on Nov. 15, 2019. This season the Russian-born pianist is the artist in residence with the New York Philharmonic, which has become his home orchestra. Victor Llorente/The New York Times.

by Joshua Barone

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- When does someone become a New Yorker? It’s sometimes said that it takes a decade. Or maybe it’s just when you no longer freak out when faced with a subway rat.

For 28-year-old piano virtuoso Daniil Trifonov, one measure could be his season-long residency with New York Philharmonic, which begins Wednesday with an appearance as the soloist in Scriabin’s Piano Concerto.

But this post is hardly temporary: It’s a capstone of Trifonov’s relationship with New York City and the Philharmonic, which has become something of a home orchestra for him. After making his debut in 2012, he has been a fixture with the ensemble, while also putting down roots in Lower Manhattan with his wife, Judith Ramirez, and their Yorkie, Ori.

Why New York? Trifonov, who was born in Russia and came to the United States to study at the Cleveland Institute of Music when he was a teenager, said some of the reasons are pretty boring. Classical musicians travel often, for example, and it’s a good city for that.

Other reasons, though, are more personal. As a child, Trifonov had an affinity for maps, and one of his favorites was of New York. Once he visited for the first time, he liked that the city was surrounded by water, and appreciated the cast-iron architecture of Tribeca. And there were so many concerts to hear on any given day.

“I already felt comfortable here,” Trifonov recalled during a recent walk along the High Line. “New York just felt like my kind of city.”

It helped that he was in demand here. After his first performance with the Philharmonic, as a fiery yet tender soloist in Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, he was invited back repeatedly, including for a monthlong Rachmaninoff festival in 2015 and the opening gala last year. At Carnegie Hall, he was asked to organize a Perspectives series for the 2017-18 season.

As the Philharmonic’s artist in residence this season, he will follow the Scriabin with a chamber music concert at the 92nd Street Y on Sunday — a program ending with the New York premiere of his “Quintetto Concertante” — and, in the spring, a solo recital and Mozart concerto. So he will be home a lot more than usual, taking a Citi Bike to work.

Trifonov practices inside his apartment, in a large Battery Park City tower. His piano can be heard from the hallway, though most of his neighbors don’t know they’re listening to one of the world’s most distinguished pianists. He’s thankful he hasn’t received any complaints — except for a time when he was playing Stockhausen’s “Klavierstück IX,” which begins with the same chord repeated well over 100 times. A woman knocked on his door, asking him to please stop.

He has already tried to schedule significant amount of stretches in New York, giving himself two-month breaks from touring to practice at home. (“Any tour longer than three weeks starts to weigh down, psychologically,” Trifonov said. “Living out of a suitcase is not something I enjoy.”) He sometimes also adds down time between performances if he’s in Russia, to visit his parents in Moscow.

It was in Moscow that he began to study with Tatiana Zelikman; they would end lessons by listening to a recording of whatever he was working on at the time, performed by a great pianist like Vladimir Horowitz. Then she would have Trifonov play the piece again. “That would open up a lot of new ways of looking,” he recalled.

Sergei Babayan, with whom Trifonov would later study in Cleveland, said that one of his student’s greatest gifts was to absorb information — like those recordings — and “make it his own.”

Indeed, Trifonov’s performances have often courted comparisons with titans of the past. The conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who led him and the Philadelphia Orchestra in a survey of Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos recorded for Deutsche Grammophon, said Trifonov “carries the torch of a legendary pianistic Russian tradition — one that combines incredible lyricism with impeccable technique.”

Trifonov still works with Babayan: “There’s never a time when you stop needing the advice of a teacher,” Trifonov said. Their relationship has evolved into something more of a friendship, though, and they occasionally perform together in blazing two-piano recitals.

“When we go up on the stage together, I have this feeling of such understanding,” Babayan said. “To find a chamber music partner is just as difficult, and one should consider it a huge a gift, as to find a partner in life and a friend.”

By now, Trifonov is for the most part in charge of his repertoire. It’s why he is playing the Scriabin concerto, a personal favorite, with the Philharmonic — and why, next May, he will give a rare performance of Alexander Mosolov’s 1927 concerto with the Nashville Symphony.

He assembled the programs of his Philharmonic residency in collaboration with Jaap van Zweden, the orchestra’s music director. Van Zweden, who described Trifonov as “totally individualistic and an artist of true imagination,” said that what they came up with “plays to everyone’s strengths and makes the artistic collaboration that much stronger in rehearsals and concerts.”

Trifonov naturally plays to his strengths in his “Quintetto Concertante.” He studied composition in Moscow and has written a few works for himself, but it leans more toward hobby than profession. He doesn’t keep a strict writing schedule; the quintet was composed in fits and starts over two and a half years.

The music he’s written has been squarely in the Russian Romantic tradition, which is why Babayan once gave him a sampling of piano repertoire from each decade of the 20th century — to broaden his palate.

The result was Trifonov’s “Decades” program at Zankel Hall in 2018, part of his Perspectives series at Carnegie. It may be the boldest and most rewarding concert of his career so far: After years of playing works by Rachmaninoff, Chopin and Liszt, he was performing music by Messiaen, Ligeti and John Adams (and that nightmarishly repetitive “Klavierstück IX”). Babayan described it as “one of those monumental things that you don’t forget.”

While he won’t be turning into a contemporary music specialist, Trifonov is in the early stages of collaborating with a composer on a new concerto. And he hopes to further develop the “Decades” program.

He may just think twice before practicing the Stockhausen at home.

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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