Piano Prodigy Shines Brighter Than Ever

Winner of the American Pianists Award and the Christel DeHaan Fellowship of the American Pianists Association
Drew Petersen will be spending much of the coming months in Manhattan as he pursues an advanced degree at the Juilliard School and makes his debut recording for the Steinway & Sons label. Durell Godfrey

There may be fewer days at the beach for Drew Petersen, a resident of Springs and Oradell, N.J. 

In April, at age 23, Mr. Petersen, a prodigy who first performed at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall at age 5, won the American Pianists Award and the Christel DeHaan Fellowship of the American Pianists Association. He has also been named artist-in-residence for two years at the University of Indianapolis, where the association is based, starting in the fall. 

Mr. Petersen won the prestigious competition with a performance, accompanied by the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra, of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 73, popularly known as the Emperor Concerto, and, with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 2. “It was a great experience for me,” he said. “The great part about this competition, for me, is that each performance felt like a performance. It didn’t feel like I was just performing for a panel of experts.” For the final performance, “There were over 1,000 people in attendance, I’m sure.”

Upon being named a finalist in the competition, “I was flung into this real whirlwind of activity,” the pianist said. “There was a lot of scheduling, choosing of repertoire for multiple appearances in Indianapolis and New York. We performed all kinds of music — solo piano, piano with orchestra, concerto performances, chamber music, even accompanying a singer. It was really a multidimensional, multifaceted competition.” 

In 2005, when the director Kim Snyder made “Just Normal,” a short film that depicts the then-11-year-old Mr. Petersen in performance at the Music Festival of the Hamptons and in a junior lifeguard program on an Amagansett beach, he had already performed a solo recital at Steinway Hall in Manhattan. That film can be seen on YouTube, along with more recent performances, all of which illustrate an ability that the late conductor Lukas Foss described as “astonishing” and the late Eleanor Sage Leonard, founder of the Music Festival of the Hamptons, called “startling.” 

Mr. Petersen has since been a prizewinner in the Leeds International Piano Competition, the Hilton Head International Piano Competition, the Kosciuszko Foundation Chopin Competition, and the New York Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition. He has performed at the Musica e Arte Festival in Tolentino, Italy, the Verbier Festival in Switzerland, and the Euro Arts Music Festival in Leipzig, Germany. 

It all started when Mr. Petersen, as a toddler, happened upon the piano on which his mother had learned. “I think the fascinating part for my parents,” he said, “was the fact that I wanted to play the piano more than I wanted to play with any of my toys.” He began formal lessons at age 5. “I was very fortunate that my parents stumbled upon a teacher in town who happened to be a Juilliard School graduate and a very serious musician, a concertizing classical pianist.” 

That teacher, the late David Bradshaw, “was really taken by what I could do, and gave it his all,” Mr. Petersen said. “He taught me a lot of great things in the first year of study. He really set me on a serious classical path.” At 6, he was too young to study in the Perlman Music Program on Shelter Island, but was referred to Miyoko Lotto, a former Springs resident who taught in the program. “When September came around we went into the city and met her. She also was really taken with me and wanted to teach me. I ended up studying with her for a very long time.” At 10, he became the youngest person ever to be admitted to the Manhattan School of Music’s pre-college program. 

Along with Beethoven, his favorite composers include Chopin, Bach, and Mozart. “Schumann is very close to my heart,” he added. “I play a lot of 20th-century and contemporary American music too, like Elliot Carter, a New York composer who I think gets a bad rap for being overly complex. I play a lot of Samuel Barber, his famous ‘Adagio for Strings.’ It runs the gamut, but I tend to focus on 19th-century European pieces, the Romantic era, like Schumann and Chopin. But it runs from Bach to present day.” 

Mr. Petersen graduated cum laude from Harvard University at 19, and did his undergraduate and graduate music studies at the Juilliard School. He recently earned a master’s degree at Juilliard, “and I’m going into the Artist Diploma, a postgraduate program for serious performers to do more career-building activities,” he said. 

Between daily practice, performances, and the requisite interviews, photo shoots, and networking that accompany a professional musician’s life, Mr. Petersen will somehow find time to record in October at the new Steinway Hall, the Midtown Manhattan facility that houses a recital venue and recording studio. The repertoire has not been finalized, he said, “but I’m hoping there will be some American bent to it, because I love American piano music, and the fact that I’m an American pianist, winning the American Pianists Award, there’s some nice continuity.”

He hopes to add composition to the mix, as well. “I don’t have time to write much of my own music right now,” he said. “Hopefully I’ll be able to in the future, but in the meantime I want to play music that speaks to me.” 

Nonverbally, of course, for how does one translate sound into words? How does one explain the unexplainable? “I always ask myself, what draws me to music to this day?” Mr. Petersen said. “It’s hard to answer. I do remember loving to hear music, whether it was going to a concert or just hearing church bells ring. To this day, I wonder. But I’m happy just knowing that I love it.”