Drew Petersen — recently awarded the 2017 American Pianists Award — is coming back to Temple Avodat Shalom.
The last time he visited, in 2014, the now 23-year-old highlighted the River Edge synagogue’s Selichot program. This time, he’ll be there for Yom Yerushalayim.
So how does the acclaimed performer — who has performed solo, concerto, and chamber music recitals in the United States, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East and was a top prizewinner in the Leeds International Piano Competition, Hilton Head International Piano Competition, Kosciuszko Foundation Chopin Competition, and the New York Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition — come to be participating in a program commemorating the reunification of Jerusalem and the establishment of Israeli control over the Old City in June 1967?
“No, I’m not Jewish, but I have visited Israel,” Mr. Petersen said. “I’ve been lucky to have had a lot of Jewish friends. Some of them brought me to Israel, where I played a recital in Tel Aviv and then went to Jerusalem. It really was a moving experience as a Christian.”
“I’m Armenian, and I’ve found over the years that a lot of our Armenian and Jewish histories are very similar,” he continued. “I can certainly sympathize and understand many aspects of the Jewish culture and faith.” Basically, he said, “It feels like such a small world, especially in the Middle East. Everything is very connected.” For example, he explained, it was “fascinating” to him to learn about Jerusalem’s Armenian quarter.
That connection, he finds, is enhanced by music. “Music in general is a tool, whether Jewish, or Israeli, or Western European, the bulk of my repertoire. Great art has a way of expressing universal truths and connecting all of us to each other.”
Still, to paraphrase a well-worn phrase about politics, in the end, all connections are local.
Mr. Petersen, who grew up in Oradell and continues to live there, began piano lessons when he was 5. Now a master’s student at Julliard, he will graduate next month. “It’s a crazy life,” he said, noting that after winning the American Pianists Award he had to go on a media tour. His parents are “the most supportive people,” he said, and “it’s nice to be home.”
According to Mr. Petersen, he got to be the River Edge synagogue’s “pianist on call” because his neighbor and longtime family friend Connie Schnoll — founder of the synagogue’s Schnoll Music Fund — “heard me playing when I was growing up and admired my playing. She wanted me to play more in New Jersey, closer to home, and share my artistry locally. She was very well connected to the temple and was able to convince them to bring me here twice to share some of my music with them. I feel really privileged to share my passion with others.”
The May 23 program will contain works by both Israeli composers and American composers of Jewish heritage. Naomi Lewin, a former WQXR commentator, will provide narration between the pieces.
“Israel is one of the younger nations on the planet,” Mr. Petersen said, and works by Israeli composers tend to be “more contemporary.” In addition, he said, “many of the really quite well known composers of the early and mid-1920s were Jews, such as Gershwin and Copeland.” He is not sure yet whose work he will include in his program, “but there will be an eclectic grouping of them,” featuring both the musical works and commentary on the composers themselves and the historical background of their pieces.
In order to have listeners enjoy his work, “I have to enjoy it and be inspired,” Mr. Petersen said. “That’s what motivates me. I’ve been working with the rabbi” — the synagogue’s Paul Jacobson — “over the past few months to come up with a concept for the program. We regularly discuss what our thoughts are and what we’re going to do. It’s a partnership, a real collaboration.
“I am fortunate to have these opportunities to explore Judaism and Israel. It’s as much a learning experience as a performance. It makes me really happy to be constantly learning.”
For his part, Rabbi Jacobson is very excited about the program and the opportunity to work with Mr. Petersen again. While the program is still “in formation,” the evening may include selections by Paul ben Haim, Alexander Boskovich, Yehezkel Braun, Marc Lavery, George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, and Aaron Copeland. The rabbi said that his young guest brings to the evening “a warmth, genuineness, passion, and willingness to lend that presence in a positive way.”
Rabbi Jacobson has been doing some research on the composers. “I found out that Copeland was raised in a Conservative Jewish family,” he said. “I didn’t know he had that background.” He pointed out as well that the piano that will be used at the program is being donated by Forte Piano in Paramus, and the entire evening is being subsidized by the Schnoll Music Fund, which was “set up so that the congregation can have events such as this.”
Rabbi Jacobson has worked with the Princeton-born Ms. Lewin before. Ms. Lewin, a former host of weekday afternoon music on WQXR and of the podcast Conducting Business, has produced intermission features for Metropolitan Opera broadcasts and music programs and feature stories for NPR. She also has been an emcee, host, and moderator for concerts, galas, and other events. And as a singer and actress, she continues to appear onstage and to give talks on operas.
Asked whether the Yom Yerushalayim program might be seen as a political statement about a unified Jersalem, given the political climate today, Rabbi Jacobson said, “We can’t celebrate or commemorate Jerusalem without it being a political statement. But playing music creates space for people to appreciate that in their own right. It allows them to acknowledge different views.”
Music can allow people to “celebrate Israel and Jerusalem and acknowledge the significance of the day while leading them to have their own opinions,” he said; indeed, “It’s more effective for being a musical program than strictly a ‘verbalized’ one.”
The program is important, Rabbi Jacobson added. “If our Jewish community is not standing with Israel — with what we see in the world — then people won’t stand with us. We’ve seen this from the beginning of time.”
Who: Pianist Drew Petersen
What: Will perform a program to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Yom Yerushalayim
When: On Tuesday, May 23, at 7:30 p.m.
Where: At Temple Avodat Shalom, 385 Howland Avenue, River Edge
Cost: $10 per person
Doors open at 7 p.m. Refreshments to follow