Pianist adds Nordic flavor to a Vallejo Symphony concert
She has performed at Carnegie Hall, but Elizabeth Dorman still practices, practices and practices to get there and beyond.
During an interview late last week, the San Francisco native was amid “a lot of practicing” — and gardening and caring for her newborn son — preparing a rendition of Edvard Grieg's Piano Concerto in A minor, an 1868 piece widely regarded as the Norwegian composer's most ambitious work. She will perform the roughly 29-minute concerto as the featured soloist for the Vallejo Symphony's Feb. 25 and 26 concerts, led by conductor Marc Taddei, in the Empress Theatre in Vallejo.
Dubbed “Fairy Tales,” the orchestra's second concert of its current season also includes Julia Perry's “Short Work for Orchestra” and Maurice Ravel's “Ma mera l'oye” (Mother Goose) ballet, the latter composition notable for its engaging climax. Perry's mid-20th-century “neoclassical” piece is a distillation of “the challenges she faced as a female composer of color in the United States,” said symphony spokesman Tim Zumwalt. And the Grieg, freighted with an impressionistic taste of Norwegian folk tunes, influenced Ravel and, along with the works of Jean Sibelius and Carl Nielsen, put Scandanavia on the musical map.
Dorman, 35, who shares a Kensington home with her husband, also a pianist turned software engineer, said the Grieg will be her first major solo performance since giving birth in
The composer's concerto, in three movements — the first and third, which includes its signature burstat-the-seams opening, dramatic sequences and references to Norwegian folk dances — “has always been on my wish list,” she said. “It's one of those `bucket list' pieces.”
“I've taught this piece but I've never performed it,” said Dorman, who earned a doctoral degree in piano and was on faculty at Stony Brook University on Long Island, New York. “It has an iconic sound. It's really great.”
Of the famous piano concertos, she likened its significance to works by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, adding, “I think every (notable contemporary) pianist has played it.”
As a student in Leipzig, Germany, Grieg, a master of miniature works and perhaps best known for his “Peer Gynt” suites, heard Schumann's Piano Concerto and his own concerto owes a clear debt to the Schumann, Dorman agreed.
“It's inspired by it, but there are different emotional centers of gravity,” she said, adding that Grieg's starts with a sonic “explosion.” “The melody is similar (to Schumann's) and the chord structure. They do have a lot in common, but the Grieg is a more flashy concerto. The Schumann is a little more introverted.”
While it is an orchestral work, the expansive concerto comes across as somewhat symphonic, said Dorman.
“It's really stirring writing,” she said. “It does feel kind of like a symphony.
The piano is really participating. It's such a charming piece. There's so much in it.”
Grieg's music has been somewhat marginalized over time but it clearly influenced Ravel. Yet, by some accounts, the Norwegian's works are gaining critical favor again.
Musical tastes “go through different cycles,” said Dorman, whose resume
includes being a finalist at the 2018 Leipzig International Bach Competition and with a Bay Area reviewer praising her “elegance and verve.” The Grieg, she added, “is tender-hearted. It's just exciting to listen to. It's one of those that everybody knows certain melodies.”
A graduate of the San Francisco School of the
Arts, she said her desire since her high school days has been to play piano professionally.
To make it in the classical music industry, added Dorman, who also performs a lot of chamber music, “You have to want it really badly. There are a lot of ups and downs.”
Her perseverance apparently has paid off. She has appeared as soloist with numerous orchestras, including the Louisville Orchestra, the Leipzig Mendelssohn Chamber Orchestra, the Santa Rosa Symphony, Symphony Parnassus, and as a keyboardist at the San Francisco Symphony. Dorman has performed at the Kennedy Center, Davies Symphony Hall, Herbst Theater, Merkin Hall, Carnegie's Weill Hall, Leipzig's Hochschule für Musik. Her live solo performances have been nationally broadcast on National Public Radio.
The life of a concert pianist, certainly during practice periods, is a largely solitary endeavor but Dorman relishes working with people.
“It's joyful,” she said. “Just the playing is a joy for me. When I'm playing, it's how I inhabit the world. I just can't imagine my life as anything other than as a pianist.”
On an endearing personal note, Dorman told The Reporter that her mother suffers from a type of dementia but livens when her daughter comes to her San Francisco home to play for her.
“It's the type of thing that really keeps me going,” Dorman said of those times, adding she can see and experience how much pleasure it brings to her mother. “I feel very lucky. It's been one of the most moving experiences of my life.”