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Most cities have a "music teachers' organization," but what other city has an institution as imaginative as the Asheville Area Piano Forum? While most of the AAPF members are professional teachers and performers, the organization cordially welcomes amateur pianists and non-performers who simply love keyboard music. AAPF provides monthly opportunities for amateurs to give informal performances and separate opportunities for professionals to try out pieces in advance of public performance. All this in addition to student competitions, master classes, educational events and the obligatory general business meetings.
The organization also provides substantial scholarship assistance to local young pianists. Twice a year, AAPF Benefit Concerts support music education, with performing members volunteering their services. The 17th Fall Benefit Concert was held at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Asheville on Sunday and provided a full plate of musical goodies: fifteen works performed by nineteen pianists and four other musicians. There is no way to fully review that many selections, so with apologies to many, I'm going to comment on the concert as a whole and then praise a few outstanding moments.
I was struck with the "changing of the guard" compared to benefit concerts five and ten years ago. Newer members of AAPF came to the fore. Four of the pianists have had long careers as jazz performers and composers, several "retiring" to Asheville after careers in New York and Los Angeles. Others have careers in teaching and performing "Classical" music, increasingly including crossover material from genres and cultures other than the traditional European canon. Seven of Sunday's performers have doctoral degrees in music performance. Western North Carolina has an amazing collection of talent.
Grace Lee opened the concert with a light-hearted tongue-in-cheek performance of Beethoven's Rondo a capriccio, Op.129, also known as "Rage Over a Lost Penny." It set the tone for the day: fun, but played with capable precision. Youthful Dr. Lee has been in the area only a couple of years and is a welcome addition to their roster of fine musicians.
Michael Jefry Stevens has been in the area for five years now, and his choice of jazz standards and particularly his own compositions always intrigue me. For this concert, he played "Triste," a 1966 bossa nova by the Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim and then "For Us," his own composition. An even more recent arrival is Marilynn Seits, accompanied in this concert by her son, the bass player Sean McAusland. Seits similarly intrigues me with her choice of repertoire and her own compositions, which are heavily influenced by the Silk Road of Asia. Her "Vibrations," incorporating a Burmese temple gong, was followed by Charles Mingus' "Fables of Faubus." This is a 1957 composition that was "a direct protest against Arkansas governor Orval E. Faubus" while Stevens" 2000 composition was "dedicated to ... people who are working towards a more equitable, kinder way of being." Some crusades last a long time, and the jazz world has been there to comment at each moment of the civil rights struggle.
O. Wayne Smith performed "Hummingbirds" by John Powell (1882-1963), an obscure Virginian composer. Powell's evocative piece is virtuosic in the extreme and I admire Dr. Smith's effort to master the score. This was my second hearing, and Powell's compositional style continues to remind me of his contemporary Percy Aldridge Grainger (1882-1961). I find Grainger to be more inventive that Powell, judging from this one piece by the Virginian. Further exploration might change my mind. The program notes explain that Powell's music was performed widely in the 1920's and 1930's. However, Powell's white supremacist views poisoned his career. (He founded the Anglo-Saxon Clubs of America in 1922, and his lobbying led directly to the passage of Virginia's infamous anti-miscegenation law, the Racial Integrity Act of 1924.) As with the anti-Semitic Richard Wagner, one has to hold one's breath and consider the music rather than the composer.
The high point of the afternoon was Hwa-Jin Kim performing William Bolcom's "The Serpent"s Kiss." This is the third movement of a suite entitled The Garden of Eden and is described as a Rag fantasy. Dr. Kim gave us sparkling contrasts, a thrilling accelerando, and even conducted the audience in clapping hands in one exciting passage. Crossover music took its proper place on center stage more than once at this concert.
The concert ended with AAPF president Kimberly Cann and three fellow teachers from her Piano Lab studios performing a work for two pianos, eight hands. While occasionally a little shaky (keeping four pianists synchronized is not easy), the Smetana "Rondo for the Young" symbolized the goal of the concert: performing happily together to benefit the young people of Western North Carolina.