Peter Serkin's longtime fans may remember him as somewhat rebellious and unconventional -- a goateed pianist in a hippie tunic, performing in the classical quartet known as Tashi. That was in the 1970s. His performances tended to be electric, and it had nothing to do with what he was wearing. Serkin has a way of striking that magical balance between intellect and heart.

Now 65, he is an elder statesman of classical music. On the verge of his Dec. 1-2 performances with Symphony Silicon Valley, this exceptional musician -- the son of legendary pianist Rudolf Serkin, the grandson of the almost as legendary violinist Adolf Busch -- phoned from his home in Western Massachusetts to talk about Brahms' D minor concerto, which he will perform at the California Theatre. He also talked about his father, children, favorite composers, love of jazz and long friendship with George Cleve, who will conduct the D minor in San Jose.

Q Peter, when you play music, do you still feel the presence of your dad?

A I do, and also of my grandfather. I feel this quite strongly -- and maybe particularly my grandfather, though I didn't know him that well. But it still is something that entered my system -- the violin playing of Adolf Busch, whose records are now something I appreciate. And with my dad, too, of course. As I grew up, I heard him play many pieces I now play myself, but at that time I heard him playing them at home. And he really did practice tremendously", and then I'd go to the performances, and I was impressed then -- and I still am.

Q Is there an essence you extracted from those two musicians, from your father and grandfather?

A I think there's a certain honesty of approach in both of them, with respect to the composer and the composition, and a curiosity about each composition being its own world that makes it singular, that makes each individual piece live. My father was quite a scholar, too. When he studied a piece of music he took out the old autographs, the first editions, and any comments the composers might have made in letters.

Q Do you do the same today when preparing to play a piece?

A I do. I've picked up a lot of that in my approach.

Q: So now you're preparing Brahms' D minor concerto. These San Jose concerts reunite you with George Cleve. When did you meet?

A I've known George since I was a teenager --- a long, long time! He was still a student at Mannes, and we were friends in New York, at the Casals Festival in Puerto Rico and at the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont, where he particularly wanted to be around, and learn from, (cellist/conductor) Don Pablo Casals. Later we played Mozart K. 595 together in Winnipeg, where he was music director, and then played together in San Francisco, New York City, Toronto and in San Jose a few times. And I think, if I remember correctly, that we did Brahms' D minor. (They did, on Jan. 18-19, 1986, with the old San Jose Symphony.)

He has such a strong affinity for this music, as he does for Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. But with George it's not the same as just having an obliging conductor who's going to abide by all kinds of details that I might wish. With George it's more that he himself has a very strong conception and intuitive sense for what the piece is, and so much so that one gets swept away by the commitment and the energy that he brings to it. I think he's one of the great conductors.

Q Did you study this concerto as a boy, maybe with your dad?

A I did not study it as a kid. I started with the Brahms concerti a little bit late, and I began with No. 2, which I actually played for the first time in San Francisco with Seiji Ozawa. And then maybe in my late 20s, I started to study the D minor with Karl Ulrich Schnabel, one of my wonderful teachers. And I did play it for my father, but with my dad it was more just playing it through, not really a study.

Q Today, do you play it very differently than you did years ago?

A I think there is some evolution, but it's not a radical difference. But in subtle ways it's different every time. Even with the same orchestra, with the same conductor, from night to night it's going to be different.

Q You're 65. At this stage of your life, what do you find yourself drawn toward musically and in terms of repertory? Are you going back, consolidating? Making new discoveries?

A I've always been very interested in music that's being written today and in recent music. That was true even as a child, when that was somewhat discouraged. But it was just a component in me somehow --- inquisitive. And so when I get older that doesn't diminish. That's still there.

Now I think I'm more inclined to be open to all kinds of music that I might have dismissed as a younger snob. I don't feel as snobbish anymore, and I welcome the chance to learn music, even if it's not the greatest music.

Q Can you give me an example?

A Well, I'd rather not name things that I don't think are great. But here's an example of something that is great: Carl Neilsen wrote a theme with variations that I'm learning, which is a beautiful work, well worth doing, and I don't think it's very often played.

Q How did you get onto it?

A It just happened. Maybe it was in Denmark, actually, hearing some Nielsen, and speaking with maestro (Herbert) Blomstedt, who's very keen on Nielsen and began telling me about the piano works. And then I just sent out for it.

And there's a set of variations by Bizet, "Variations chromatiques," that's also very bold and fascinating to me, though I don't have plans to perform it. But I've taken a great interest in it. And there are some Stravinsky etudes, early works, which are brilliant -- and not often played, which I don't understand. I thought I'd take those on, as well as some pieces by Max Reger that I like very much.

So not recent pieces in those cases, but ones that are a little bit lesser known, and that I'm very keen to play for people.

Q How about brand new composers? Do any interest you?

A There's lots that I'm interested in.

Of course, as I get older I realize that the music that once was very new for me is no longer new at all. And while some of these composers may have died, I'm still very into their work. So when I play a work by (Olivier) Messiaen or (Toru) Takemitsu, (Stefan) Wolpe or (Luciano) Berio, I first like to take out much of their music -- opera, choral music, orchestral music without piano -- and get some sense of their overall output and how it's reflected in their piano music, as well.

I've also been listening to some (Iannis) Xenakis, which I find remarkable, and playing lots of music by Charles Wuorinen, who is alive, and so that is current.

Q Any plans to learn music by some of the cool young composers in Brooklyn?

A I'm interested, but because I don't live in New York, I don't hear as much of it anymore, except what happens to be on the radio. I'm always interested, but I haven't yet found anyone to whom I would attach the kind of importance I would to Wourinen, for instance, or Takemitsu, when he was alive. But that's just because of my limitations, I'm sure. But my antennae are out.

Q You have five children. Do any of them play music?

A They've all played something or other. Stefan, my oldest son, has played trumpet, jazz trumpet. He graduated from Berklee (College of Music in Boston) last year. And Willie, my youngest son, also plays trumpet in a wonderful jazz band and large concert band at his school.

Q Interesting. Are you a jazz fan?

A Very much so. I used to hear some wonderful players in New York. I'll never forget hearing Thelonious Monk play in the clubs downtown. I heard Monk, and I heard Bill Evans. Heard many of these great saxophonists; I love Archie Shepp in particular. Frank Morgan. And many others.

Somehow I learned so much from them without being able to say exactly what it is. But there was something fundamental about the experience of listening to these guys, particularly Monk. I'll never forget it. I don't play jazz myself, though I've improvised.

Q What's the fundamental thing you pulled away from hearing them?

A I think there's a certain rhythmic energy and wildness and freedom and expression, maybe, if I had to put it into words. And the quality of making something up on the spot, based on a real sense of discipline at the same time, which is something I really admire in classical music performances, too. With all the work that goes into it, and all the considerations of a composer's intentions -- that there should still be that sense of spontaneity, that it's happening right now, on the spot.

Q Let's backtrack. Can you tell me about your other kids?

A Sure. Karina is my oldest, from my first marriage. She's in her 40s now, lives in Colorado and has two beautiful daughters. Elena lives in Germany. She's very connected with horses and equestrian work, and she's living at an equestrian farm in Bavaria. She's 25 now. Then Stefan, who's 23. Then Maya. She's 21, a senior at George Washington University; she's been studying international affairs. Then Willie is the youngest, 14 years old, playing soccer, a freshman in high school.

Q I wonder what you think of the commercialization of the classical music scene, as well as the big publicity apparatus that attaches itself to so many artists and organizations.

A I have something of an aversion to that kind of an approach. There's something that seems to miss the point when there's too much emphasis being put on the individual who's performing the great classic works. If there's so much emphasis put on the performing of it, it seems to detract from the actual conception, the actual experiencing of the music itself. And it can even be a distraction for the performer; performers can start to think of themselves too seriously and start to manufacture performances and interpretations, rather than letting the music lead them.

Q My guess is you've felt this way for a long time.

A Yes. And maybe I was brought up that way, to have tremendous reverence for the great composers and not to make too great a deal out of those who play the music.

Q Over the years, you've spoken a lot about your dad, who was one of your teachers, sometimes mentioning his withering criticisms. Do you bring that sort of tough love approach into your own teaching? Is it beneficial?

A I think that, in a definite way in my teaching, I channel much of what I learned from all my teachers, though not necessarily even consciously. Things that I learned from (Mieczyslaw) Horszowski, as well as my dad and from Karl Ulrich Schnabel, as well as from other musicians who were not even pianists -- like Marcel Moyse, the flutist, and some of the conductors I was around, from Otto Klemperer to George Szell.

I was so eager to learn that it was almost some kind of implant or transplant. And I just can't help it, in the lessons I give today, to impart some of what they imparted to me. And my father was one of those teachers, no doubt. His very critical style towards his sons, I think, makes it a little more complicated, perhaps. No, I don't try to imitate that. If anything, I try to be more encouraging -- not to smooth over issues. But basically the reason we're together is (for me) to try to be of help, and I think encouragement is a big part of that, because it's kind of an act of bravery to play classical music.

And I'm very open to my students as they're being my teachers, as well.

Q Can you explain what you mean?

A The things they do that may not have occurred to me. That can stimulate ideas, so it really goes both ways.

Q One more question, before you go. I've read about your nervousness as a performer. Do you still have bouts of nerves?

A Yes, it's true. I'm afraid so. But I live with it, and I almost respect it in a certain way. I don't dread it as much as I used to. I can live with it. It's part of the energy of what's going on.

Contact Richard Scheinin at 408-920-5069, read his stories and reviews at www.mercurynews.com/richard-scheinin and follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/richardscheinin

Symphony Silicon Valley
Peter Serkin, piano; George Cleve, conductor
When: 8 p.m. Dec. 1, 2:30 p.m. Dec. 2
Where: California Theatre, 345 S. First St., San Jose
Tickets: $39-$79, 408-286-2600, extension 23, www.symphonysiliconvalley.org