With its rumbling timpani and crashing piano chords, the opening of Edvard Grieg's Piano Concerto is so recognizable, it's almost become part of the collective unconscious.
Portions of the work have popped up on top-10 radio (Kokomo's pop hit "Asia Minor" in 1961), TV shows (David Lynch's "Twin Peaks" in the 1980s) and the big screen (Adrian Lyne's film "Lolita" 1997), among many other places.
Oddly enough, you don't hear it very often on the concert stage these days.
"In my younger days, I was asked to play it all the time," said pianist Philippe Bianconi. "In the last 10 or 15 years, it hasn't been played that often. Maybe because people got tired of it?"
In his second appearance with the Santa Rosa Symphony since 2008, Bianconi will perform the concerto this weekend with his old friend, Music Director Bruno Ferrandis, as part of a "Sons of the Fjord" program showcasing music of the Northern European midnight sun.
The concerts will kick off with a short work by the young Norwegian composer Orjan Matre, "Resurgence for Orchestra," which Ferrandis describes as "beautiful and esoteric."
The piece explores the link between sound and space, with musicians placed at various locations in the hall.
Rounding out the Northern theme will be Jean Sibelius' Symphony No. 2 in D Major, which evokes the icy expanses of Norway with gentle melodies and restless rhythms. It is the composer's most famous symphony.
Like Ferrandis, Bianconi grew up in Nice, France, with parents of Italian heritage. The two musicians, who both live in Paris now, attended the Conservatory of Nice together.
"Bruno took piano lessons, and at some point, we had the same piano teacher," Bianconi recalled. "At a very young age, he (Bruno) was already very intellectual and cultured."
Bianconi went on to study with pianist Gaby Casadesus in Paris, winning the Casadesus International Competition in Cleveland and the Jeunesses Musicales International Competition in Belgrade, Serbia.
But it was the 7th Cliburn International Piano Competition in 1985, where he won the silver medal, that truly launched his career.
"That really got me started in this country," he said. "The U.S. is the country where I spend the most time, outside of France."
Bianconi is comfortable playing music of all eras, from Mozart and Brahms to Debussy and Bartok.
"I think it's very challenging and exciting to be able to go from one style to another," he said. "I don't know if I can do justice to all of it, but I just love doing it."
However, he feels closest to the Romantic repertoire and composers like Rachmaninoff and Schumann.
"When I play, I try to do justice to the composer and the piece," he said. "And I do it with my own means — my sensitivity and my personality."
While performing, the pianist strives to communicate and share the work's emotions with the audience.
In the Grieg concerto, which was written in the heart of the Romantic era, those emotions offer stark contrasts.
"I want to share with the audience the grandeur of the piece," he said. "There's the dark side of the Northern European psyche, and then there's this beautiful, lyrical second theme that is so warm."
In the second movement, the orchestra plays the melody while the piano fills in with grace notes, arpeggios and other musical filigree.