A key(board) performer: Philharmonic pianist in spotlight for Feb. 2 concert

The next soloist for the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic is so humble that he once prepared for a rigorous Philharmonic audition, never telling the music director that he was basically a gifted and rising talent — one who had just won the prestigious 2017 Indiana University Jacobs School of Music Concerto Competition.

And one who was performing with an orchestra the day after the audition.

David Bowden, music director for the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic, was stunned by such humility — especially at one of the nation’s top music schools.

“He is such a modest guy,” Bowden said.

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Twenty-five-year-old Timothy Stephenson waves away such praise, as a humble person naturally would do. And though he is impressed with the local ensemble that he is now a part of, he seems unimpressed with himself — and the fact that he will be in the spotlight at the orchestra’s Feb. 2 concert at Judson Erne Auditorium at 1400 25th St. in Columbus.

The Boston native will play Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto, a work heard everywhere from TV commercials to a 1972 Jethro Tull rock tour. Stephenson aims to play the piece so the audience can focus on the piece, and not on him.

“A teacher showed me an approach to performing that removes the ego,” Stephenson said, speaking by phone from his home in Bloomington, where he is an IU doctoral student. “He showed me that performing is an act of generosity toward the audience. You’re opening yourself to share the beauty of the music. And in that situation, there is no room for the self.”

Yet, apparently, there is plenty of room for everyone else on stage with him. Bowden recalled watching him in a fall 2017 concert with the Philharmonic as Stephenson keenly observed his ensemble counterparts.

“He had a big-picture awareness of how all the music was coming together,” Bowden said. “And when he played, he did so within that big picture. And it was fabulous.”

That awareness is so keen that Bowden already has encouraged him to think long-term about a conducting career track down the road. For now, Stephenson is uncertain what that could mean. So he’s letting the option sit quietly, especially since he also busies himself with a regularly performing duo with violinist wife Jia-Ron Gan, also a Philharmonic member.

“In my mind, in an ideal world, that possibility (of conducting) would be a wonderful thing that I would love to do,” Stephenson said. “For me right now, though, I’m too worried just about all the notes I need to play on the piano, for the most part.”

He’s a quick study, apparently. When his wife was scheduled to perform with him in the summer at the orchestra’s annual meeting, something came up and she couldn’t make it. A last-minute replacement stepped in the day before. And she and Stephenson played two classical works seemingly flawlessly, even with no rehearsal.

“You have to be convicted about the music you’re playing — and sure of what you want to say,” Stephenson said.

In something of an unusual turn for someone in the classic music track, Stephenson still loves jazz, and performs the genre when he can, sometimes working it into his college classes in piano performance.

“His versatility is exceptional,” Bowden said. “And his playing is so artistically satisfying.”

For all the talk of modesty, Stephenson, the very hero of humility, acknowledged that his bravado does indeed surface — when he moves his fingers from the piano keyboard to the Foosball flippers. He laughingly blames his dad, who never would condescendingly allow his son to win when they went head to head.

“I’m probably a little overconfident there,” Stephenson said with a laugh. “I think my dad just lit a fire in me.”

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Who: Columbus Indiana Philharmonic pianist Timothy Stephenson, performing Edvard Grieg’s piano concerto with the orchestra in his first solo performance. Other works on the program include Johannes Brahms’ Second Symphony, and the fourth of George Whitefield Chadwick’s Symphonic Sketches, musically telling the story of a hobo riding the rails.

When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 2.

Where: Judson Erne Auditorium, 1400 25th St. in Columbus.

Tickets: $5 to $50, available at thecip.org.

Information: 812-376-2638 or thecip.org.