Pianist Esther Keel to take “Egyptian Strut” with PSO


Take a look at a symphony orchestra program featuring the debut concerto performance of a particular pianist and chances are the work you’ll be seeing printed before you will be the Tchaikovsky “Piano Concerto No. 1.” Or a Schumann piano concerto. Maybe Grieg. Or one of Beethoven’s. But outside of those, the field tends to be narrow for reasons that are outside the scope of this article to dwell upon. So it’s a bit of an eye-opener to see a work – by a well-known composer, to be sure – that deserves equal attention, but hasn’t so far received it.

On Saturday, Feb 18 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. at the Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena, pianist Esther Keel will make her debut performances with the Pasadena Symphony in a Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Piano Concerto No. 5,” nicknamed the “Egyptian.”

“It’s so sensual, so beautiful,” said Keel. “It has qualities like no other composer. I’m so happy to be playing it. It has been a lot of fun to practice.”

On top of the concert being her Pasadena Symphony debut, it will also be the debut of her interpretation of the Egyptian concerto.

“It was suggested to me [along with other concertos], so I chose it. It seemed like a good fit. I’ve always loved this concerto,” she said. “It’s such a fascinating work because it reflects [Saint-Saëns’] love of traveling. He loved to travel and was very enthusiastic about it. So the piece has absorbed all these beautiful colors. I mean, it’s so exotic. It has Asian flavors, African colorings, Russian sounds, and so on. It’s an incredible work.”

When asked about what inspired her to play the Saint-Saëns concerto, she cited British pianist Stephen Hough’s critically acclaimed recordings of the composer’s complete concertos as a revelation.

“He’s a master. My favorite pianist of all,” she said.

Keel, it should be noted, is no stranger to the stage, having made her professional debut at the age of 13 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under then music director Esa-Pekka Salonen.

“Esa-Pekka is so brilliant,” Keel recalled. “I was very honored to work with him.”

She’s also no stranger to the Ambassador Auditorium, having performed there last season with the Colburn School Orchestra.

“The hall has beautiful acoustics. I’m very excited to be performing there again.”

When asked about what drives her to pursue her pianistic career, she said, “It was the room for creativity and fun.”

“When you’re being a part of classical music, you sometimes don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

Prior to her Feb. 18 performance at the Ambassador, Keel will team up with pianist Yana Reznik in a piano duo Valentine’s Day recital at Noor Restaurant in Pasadena.

For more information on Esther Keel and her future performances, visit www.estherkeel.com; for the Pasadena Symphony, please visit www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org.

The Ambassador Auditorium is located at 131 S. Saint John Ave., in Pasadena.