Drew Petersen

Pianist Drew Petersen will tackle Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Waco Symphony Orchestra on Thursday night.

Thursday’s season-opening Waco Symphony Orchestra concert packs a lot into a short program: two major works, Richard Strauss’ “A Hero’s Life” and Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1, plus Kevin Puts’ short “Millennium Canons.”

That’s fine with guest pianist Drew Petersen, 25, who finds plenty of room in the work to stretch as a musician. “I love [the Liszt] piece. It was among the first concertos I learned and I’ve known it since I was a teenager,” said the Indianapolis-based pianist. “It’s an energetic, bombastic piece, but in other ways poetic. It’s over-the-top bombastic and over-the-top poetic.”

Though its composer was known for his flamboyant style at the keyboard, Petersen said he’s so focused on the music that the audience fades from his awareness. “You can sense the audience is along the journey with you . . . but I think the music is primary.”

The dynamic contrasts, the virtuosic runs and interpretive range add up to a physically demanding piece, but Petersen added that Liszt had a sense of humor, too, which lightens the concerto. “I think the piece is a bit of fun. It’s not his most serious work.”

Though only 25, Petersen already has an impressive resume, starting with precocious debuts at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall at age 5, a solo recital at Steinway Hall in Manhattan at age 9 and a Harvard University degree at age 19.

Two years ago, and well into a performing career, Petersen won the American Pianists Awards, the latest addition to a trophy shelf with four other major piano contest victories. This one led to a recording, which, in true Petersen form, explored different territory with piano sonatas by Samuel Barber and Elliott Carter, Judith Lang Zaimont’s suite “Attars” and works by Charles Ives and Charles Griffes.

“I managed to pick pieces that showed each composer and their own voice, but in a period in their lives writing in a style they hadn’t made their own,” he said of the Barber and Carter sonatas. “It was a fun project to do.”

The WSO will open Thursday’s concert with Strauss’ tone poem “A Hero’s Life.” Music director Stephen Heyde said its scale, requiring more than 90 musicians, and depth of writing would challenge any orchestra. “It’s a pretty incredible piece, and a bigger piece than the Mahler (First) symphony,” he said. “I’m glad to have an orchestra that’s good enough to handle it.”

The work, which calls for an expanded woodwind section and a brass section with five trumpets and eight horns, is Strauss’ musical interpretation of a hero in the romantic style — and Strauss likely saw it as about him, Heyde said. “It disproves the theory that narcissism is a 21st century phenomenon,” he said with a laugh.

Preceding the Lizst concerto, the WSO will peform Kevin Puts’ “Millennium Canons,” a work that the music director shows the contemporary composer’s accessible style.

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