Some demand video games, others beg for ponies. When Gregory DeTurck was old enough to form a sentence, he was asking his mom for piano lessons. This voluntary subjection to the humiliating years of early childhood pianism created a rare dynamic between DeTurck and his parents. As he put it in a recent e-mail to The Journal:
“I was never forced into it—quite the contrary; sometimes after long days at work, my parents would ask me to stopplaying so much just to get some much needed quiet.”
Considering the televised arsenal of commercial advertising and the daily onslaught of peer pressure, it was unusual that his parents didn’t have to resort to coercive methods to get their son to practice—rather, his musical curiosity seemed purely instinctual.
“It’s not that I was anything special—I just enjoyed playing around on this beast of an instrument that was so many times larger than myself,” said DeTurck, who is the winner of this year’s William Petschek Piano Debut Recital Award.
Fast forward to his senior year of high school, and DeTurck once again felt the social pressures that inevitably accompany any serious dedication to music. With video games turned off and ponies left in the stable, his friends were now convulsing over A.P. tests and college applications. Come springtime, while the rest of his class was just receiving the news from colleges—both the good and the bad—DeTurck was still enduring the demanding process of flying around the country auditioning. Luckily he still enjoyed playing the beastly instrument, which in just over a decade had grown many times larger than his schoolwork.
“I’d come back from one of these trips and inevitably get called on in English class to explain the symbolism in the imagery of a passage I hadn’t read, or in calc to show my work on the blackboard of an integral I hadn’t solved,” he said. “There were so many times I just wanted to turn around and say ‘Well, I have no idea what you’re all talking about, but check out my double-thirds!’”
His investment in double-thirds paid off and DeTurck was accepted to the prestigious Eastman School of Music, a strange and wonderful paradise filled with people just like him. In his words, “Suddenly double-thirds mattered andCyrano de Bergerac didn’t.”
Ever since his decision to abandon fin de siècle dramaturgy in favor of piano performance, DeTurck, 28, has continued to reap rewards. As winner of Juilliard’s annual Petschek Award, which has been launching the careers of burgeoning young pianists for 25 years, he will perform a debut recital in Alice Tully Hall on May 6. Since completing his master’s at Juilliard and returning to Eastman for his doctorate, DeTurck had become a veteran of the Petschek final round before finally taking the cake in 2010.
“This year after I played, I went home, complained about how I couldn’t get adequate repeated notes out of the audition piano, and made plans to go out. As I was picking up my keys to leave, my phone rang with the Juilliard number on caller ID, and my first thought was ‘Well, maybe I improved again…’ Then when she gave me the news, poor Tricia got an obnoxiously joyous yelp right in her ear,” he recalled, referring to Tricia Ross, associate vice president for executive projects.
DeTurck’s upcoming program will feature a selection of less familiar works by familiar composers: Scarlatti, Debussy, Schumann, Copland, and Falla. “Scarlatti’s music is perfect for the opening of a recital—it’s a very elegant way to flirt with the audience from the outset,” he said.
After seducing his audience with three short gems, DeTurck will pay homage to one of his former teachers, conjuring up the relics of his years as a master’s student at Juilliard. “Julian Martin, bless his heart, had the patience to teach me all 12 of the Debussy études,” he said, “so I found my favorite sequential three to say ‘thank you.’”
With the rest of the world celebrating Chopin’s bicentennial with endless performances of the G-Minor Ballade or Third Sonata, DeTurck will close the first half of his program by honoring the 200th birthday of another composer, Robert Schumann. His Humoreske, Op. 20, might not have the popular appeal of Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu or “Minute” Waltz, but it is a tour-de-force in its own right, and has kept DeTurck’s heels clicking.
“I find the Humoreske to be a particularly interesting cycle because its singular unifying component is a rhythmic motive rather than a pitch motive,” he pointed out. “Plus, it’s got some deliciously melancholy tunes … I find myself absent-mindedly humming these constantly.”
The second half of the program will feature a pair of 20th-century composers from opposite sides of the Atlantic, though sharing a common tendency to integrate the folk idioms of their respective countries into their own compositions. The last movement of Copland’s Piano Sonata, like much of his pastoral works, seems to depict an endless landscape, offering DeTurck a chance to indulge. “I could drown in the expansiveness of the last movement,” he said.
Manuel de Falla’s Fantasia Baética, originally written for Arthur Rubinstein, is a passionate work often overshadowed by his crowd-pleasing Ritual Fire Dance. Despite its neglect, DeTurck is outspoken about the Fantasia’s greatness: “The Falla, despite Rubenstein’s aversion to performing it in his day, and its spotty performance record thereafter, is evocative and exciting—and I stand by those adjectives.”
Although his early musical curiosities were certainly invaluable to his later successes, DeTurck acknowledges that he couldn’t have gotten to where he is now without his experiences in Rochester (where Eastman is located) and New York City. Currently completing his second year at the Academy—a program of Carnegie Hall, The Juilliard School, and the Weill Music Institute—DeTurck reflects positively on his elite conservatory training.
“Having the opportunity to attend such fancy-pants schools as Eastman and Juilliard is truly a blessing,” he said, reserving most of his praise for his primary teachers, Thomas Schumacher and Julian Martin. “Having competent role models is a wonderful rarity that I’m aware not everyone gets—but to have empathetic, caring, and generous role models on top of that is indeed amazing.”
Just as he sat enjoying the sounds of the piano as a child, what kept him motivated during his lessons was simple: it was fun.
“And fun not just in the ‘I can’t believe he said this Scriabin étude sounds like drag queens’ fun, but also in the ‘I never would have thought of it that way … I’ve got to go home and practice this out immediately … what a brilliant idea …’ kind of fun.”