Guest pianist Louis Schwizgebel performs Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto in MSO Debut

David Lewellen

Tagged Under: 2017.18 Season, Guest Artist, piano

After a decade on the international piano circuit, Louis Schwizgebel is only now approaching Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto.

Schwizgebel, who will perform that landmark of the repertoire this week with the Milwaukee Symphony, has known the piece forever, of course, but this month marks his first public perfomances. He performed it last week for the first time with the BBC Philharmonic in Leeds, England, before flying to Milwaukee to play it again.

This weekend will be Schwizgebel’s debut with the MSO, and he said there is always an adjustment period with a new orchestra and a new concert hall – although he has worked many times with the conductor, Fabien Gabel. “The Beethoven is very similar to chamber music,” he said. “It’s the same process of getting to know the other musicians.”

The Concerto No. 5, Beethoven’s final statement in that genre, might not seem chamber-like to the casual listener, but Schwizgebel said, “There is serenity and quiet in it, too. And it’s powerful without being flashy.”

Learning the notes of a new piece is a fairly quick process, Schwizgebel said, but then he makes a point of setting it aside for a while. Taking that time, “you really integrate the piece,” he said. “Otherwise, it’s too fresh, unless you leave it to mature a little bit in your brain. “Ideally, you get a little bit of time, and some distance, so that once it’s learned, then you practice it.”

In the case of the Beethoven, he said, “it’s so famous you don’t really need to listen to it” — but nevertheless, he will check how other pianists have interpreted the piece. “It’s almost scary when you think about it, how it’s been played by everyone before.”

Schwizgebel grew up in Switzerland with his Swiss father and Chinese mother, who are both visual artists. His mother works in Chinese painting and calligraphy, and his father, Georges, produces animated films with music but no dialogue. That has been an opportunity for some family collaboration, such as the video (above) featuring him playing the soundtrack for an animation that his father created after hearing him play Schubert’s “Erlkönig” song.

Fitting a live performance to the animation is “pretty hard, actually,” Louis Schwizgebel said. “It takes practice to make sure the chord and the image line up.”

For fun, Schwizgebel enjoys origami. “Everyone knows simple things,” he said, “but in Japan it’s an art and a science. It takes a lot of precision and patience, so it’s something I’m used to.” Sometimes he gets extra creative in designing his own folds, such as the video he created playing Yoda’s theme from “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” while a time-lapse shows him folding an original origami design of Yoda.

He posted the video on Facebook and Instagram for his followers’ enjoyment, as is his habit; he likes having an outlet where he can share interesting things about his life that relate to music tangentially or not at all.

But most of his life has revolved around music. He began studying piano at age 6, “and it very quickly became a passion. It was my childhood dream to become a professional pianist, and I never had to make an adult decision about what I wanted to be. It went from dream to reality.”