Tales from the Keyboard

Tales from the Keyboard

Since my childhood, I always liked to know the history of piano compositions I was learning. It deepened my understanding of the piece; it “gave food to my imagination”, as we say in Russian. Thus, in many years of playing piano, I collected a wealth of information about the piano pieces and their composers. To share it with my listeners, I offer “Tales from the Keyboard”: a series of concerts where music is intertwined with short anecdotes, amusing facts, and my personal recollections about the pieces. These performances give the audience a more intimate perspective on music; help to feel the atmosphere in which the piece was composed; or revive some dramatic moment of its history...

 On one of my concerts, I told a story about the “Autumn Dream” waltz by Archibald Joyce – reputedly, the last piece that was ever played on the sinking Titanic. A listener wrote to me a few weeks later, telling me how she still cherishes the story of the heroic musicians, who continued playing in these last minutes of their life. She added that this story forever changed and deepened her perception of the piece.

“Tales from the Keyboard” programs have the dual appeal of a concert and a show, of education and entertainment. What they certainly are not is an academic-sounding lecture. I never speak like a musicologist: “at the bar # 133 the composer change the harmony from g-minor to F-major”... Of all the facts about the piece I pick the most dramatic and unexpected ones.

Isn't it amazing that the “Blue Danube” waltz – this most famous composition of Johann Strauss – was a dismal failure at its first performance, and would be forever lost if not for a strange chain of circumstances (the same fate befell “Moscow Nights”)? Isn't it amusing that composer Albeniz helped to publish the first big composition of his young colleague Turina – a piano quintet – on the condition that he'll never write anything like that again?!

In true Liberace style, I make my programs as diverse as possible to evoke a wide range of contrasting emotions. For example, I might tell the audience a touching tale about composer Max Kuss’ unhappy love for his military commander’s wife (waltz “Amur Waves”); and then follow with a humorous story about Johann Strauss’ Newfoundland dog: Strauss’ valet gave flocks of perfumed dog fur as memorabilia to female admirers of the composer, passing it off as his master’s hair... (waltz “Blue Danube”).

I might also relate the heroic conduct of Gypsy musicians during the war between Hungary and Austria (“Czardas” by Vittorio Monty), before recounting the story of how a band of gypsies attempted to kidnap my wife when she was five years old (“Two Guitars”)... Or, after the moving song about Hanukkah candles (“O, Ir Kleyne Liktelekh”) I would tell the hilarious story of Russian criminals who “usurped” the Yiddish song “Papirosen”... The tidbits of some of those stories may be found on the page CD Songs of Exiles.

Every story, of course, culminates in beautiful music played in virtuoso arrangements. My style is influenced both by a classical piano education and by Jewish and Gypsy performing traditions; my piano arrangements are thus a blend of classical rigor with Gypsy-like improvisational freedom. You may get a taste of my style by previewing my recordings on Amazon.com or iTunes

Each music composition I play lasts 3 to 8 minutes, with a story to match: this alternation of story and music, humor and sentiment, vibrancy and poignancy imparts a brisk, dynamic tempo to the program. As one listener told me after concert, “when you tell the story, we are already anticipating the music, and when you play, we are eagerly awaiting the next story!”

The series “Tales from the Keyboard” currently features ten different programs, from “Songs of Exiles: Jewish and Gypsy Music,” to “Kalinka: Russian Songs and Pieces,” to “Love in Three Quarters Beat” (love stories associated with famous waltzes). You will find more details in the Programs page.

Take a look around the site, and contact me if you have any questions or comments. I look forward to seeing you at one of my performances!

Pianist Alexander Zlatkovski