Horacio Gutierrez

Since making his professional debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1970, Horacio Gutierrez has been one of the most sough-after and popular pianists of his generation.

He's appeared with almost every major orchestra in the United States and Europe, as well as playing chamber music and recitals in all the great concert venues.

Utah Symphony audiences have seen him on numerous occasions over the years, although the last time he played in Salt Lake City was in January 2004. Fortunately, Gutierrez will return to Utah for concerts next weekend with the Utah Symphony under the baton of Keith Lockhart.

A lot has happened to the Cuban-born pianist in the nearly 4 1/2 years since he was here last, including a life-threatening bout with cancer. Diagnosed with primary gastric lymphoma last year, Gutierrez underwent chemotherapy. He told the Deseret Morning News that the cancer is in remission.

"It was a tough time," he said in a phone interview from his home in New York, "but I am feeling very well, and the prognosis is excellent."

His interview with the Deseret Morning News was the first he has granted since his illness. And it was also the first time he had talked about his cancer publicly, although it had been reported in Playbill last summer.

Gutierrez was treated at Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York, where he underwent six cycles of chemotherapy. He said that he owes his life to his doctor. "He made it possible for me to continue."

It was his desire to be a role model for other people in the same situation that fueled Gutierrez's decision to speak about his cancer. "I decided to talk about it because being open and speaking frankly about it might help some people," he said. "I kept wondering at the time if I would ever be able to play again. And I am proof that you can overcome cancer and go on with your life. It can be treated and you can be cured."

The week before he spoke with the Deseret Morning News, Gutierrez played Tchaikovsky's B flat minor Concerto with the Seattle Symphony — his first concert in 11 months. "Afterwards, I was told that I was looking well and sounding well. I am very optimistic about the future."

For his concerts with the Utah Symphony this coming weekend, Gutierrez will play Brahms' Concerto No. 1 in D minor. Being one of the most compelling exponents of the core romantic repertoire — with the two Brahms concertos firmly in the center — Gutierrez can't help but speak passionately about the First. "It is one of the great pieces he wrote," he said, "and it's such an amazing work when one thinks of how young he was when he wrote it. The depth of maturity and the ambitious structure one finds in this work is incredible."

Writing never came easily to Brahms. He was in his 40s when he finally wrote his first symphony, and most of his works underwent several changes before he was satisfied enough to let them be published.

This was the case with the First Concerto. Brahms originally conceived it as a sonata for two pianos, playing it frequently with Clara Schumann. Eventually, Brahms decided to turn it into a concerto. And that was a difficult process for him, because he continually rewrote movements.

"People helped him with it," Gutierrez said. One of his closest friends, the violinist Joseph Joachim, was also his most trusted adviser when it came to musical suggestions. "When he was finished with a movement, Brahms would send it to Joachim to get ideas. Brahms was always open to suggestions, and he would listen to people."

Later, Brahms made an arrangement of the concerto for piano four hands, and that version is useful to resolving discrepancies among all the different versions of the work, Gutierrez said. "The one for four hands answers a lot of questions about dynamics and notes. You get a clearer idea of what Brahms intended."

Because of its length, the First provides ample opportunity for exploration. "One can investigate it and try different tempi. Brahms knew what he wanted in the music, but the First poses individual problems. It lends itself to development and interpretation."

The First Concerto has been in Gutierrez's repertoire almost from the start of his career, and there came a point when he realized he had to put it aside because he felt he had become over-familiar with it. "I didn't play it for about seven years," he said. "It's important to do that. And when you do come back to it, it's so wonderful. It's like seeing another aspect of an old friend."

The hourlong concerto takes up the second half of this weekend's program. In the first half, Lockhart will conduct members of the Utah Symphony in two works by Dvorak: the String Serenade in E major, op. 22, and the Woodwind Serenade in D minor, op. 44.

E-mail: ereichel@desnews.com

If you go...

What: Horacio Gutierrez, piano; Keith Lockhart, conductor, Utah Symphony

Where: Abravanel Hall

When: Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m.

How much: $12-$48

Phone: 355-2787 or 888-451-2787

Web: utahsymphony.org

Also: Brahms' First Piano Concerto on the Utah Symphony's Music Exposed Series, Abravanel Hall, Thursday, 7 p.m., $10-$35 (355-2787 or 888-451-2787)