By Pete Zamplas
You gotta hand it to teen classical pianist whiz Christopher Tavernier — the musical daredevil will play a brisk composition with only one hand this weekend.
Eleven Eleven: Remembering Armistice is on Veterans Day weekend, Saturday, Nov. 10 and again on Sunday which is Veteran’s Day. The concert honors veterans, on the 100th anniversary of the original Armistice Day. Performances are in UNC-Asheville’s Lipinsky Auditorium. The concert starts at 3 p.m., on both afternoons. Ingles is the corporate sponsor.
This is the season opener of the Blue Ridge Orchestra (BRO). The Asheville-based ensemble is all-volunteer and officially a nonprofit since 2005. BRO blends professional, retired pros and amateur musicians.
Tavernier routinely sells out his concerts. Tickets were still available, as of press time.
In honoring veterans, the award-winning pianist told The Tribute that he feels “fantastic, to be part of a program like this.” Both of his maternal great-grandparents were in the Air Force. Tavernier, 18, is a Hendersonville High School senior.
BRO sought out the lad to play in the middle of three pieces. He will perform Maurice Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand, with the orchestra accompanying him. BRO Music Director Milton Crotts said he is excited to collaborate with such a “gifted and talented young artist, who will bring a fresh musical perspective to a demanding work.”
Tavernier is left-handed. He is known for how fast and crisply he can play. Playing with one hand requires refocusing. He said he “had it down” in merely ten weeks, compared to a typical timetable of a half-year to master a piece. He has practiced it for four months, by now.
He got to where he does not need to consciously sideline his idle right hand, to prevent any distraction. The right hand is “just there,” and he ignores it. “I focus on my left hand.” Some renown pianists who try this piece use the right hand to grip the end of the piano, while the left hand jumps across the keyboard.
Covering the full range of keys was a fun challenge. “It’s definitely different,” Tavernier said. “When I first practiced it, it took a little time.” Mentally and in muscle memory “it’s hard to get used to playing the entire keyboard with one hand” — even his dominant left hand,” Tavernier said. This is especially with “the left hand in the (piano’s) upper register.” In contrast, “when you play with two hands, one hand naturally balances the other one out.”
This concerto’s tempo fluctuates, he said. “It’s everywhere, in a bunch of different sections.” The opening is slow. Next is a peppy allegro. The orchestra builds energy, and the piano bursts in with a cadenza. Ravel meticulously composed what sounds like improvisation on piano.
American jazz harmonies are next, with blues notes. Deliberate, precise impressionist-styled composer Ravel (1875-1937) visited American jazz clubs. The final cadenza is ripe with arpeggios and a singing melody, that the one hand amazingly provides on piano.
Ravel was also generally inspired by two of Tavernier’s favorites — Franz Liszt and Frederic Chopin’s virtuosic piano pieces. Ravel could draw out a piece meticulously, as evidenced by his famed and sultry 15-minute Bolero that was in the film 10 starring Bo Derek.
The French master orchestrator, pianist and conductor was merely five feet tall and lived in a small-sized house. He was known to keep artifacts of his childhood. He never married, and is quoted of saying “my only mistress is my music.”
Ravel wrote the lefty piece in 1929-30 for one hand, but had it sound as good as if played by both hands. He composed it concurrently with his Piano Concerto in G, using both hands. Ravel was commissioned by Paul Wittgenstein, an Austrian pianist who debuted it in 1932. He had to play left-handed, after losing his right arm from combat on the Russian front in World War I. Thus the piece relates to Armistice Day, which celebrated the end of WWI and has since been expanded to honor all veterans’ service.
Tavernier will demonstrate the capability of one-handed piano playing to Carolina Day School students in their school today, Nov. 8, as arranged by BRO’s Crotts.
Tavernier will play at UNCA on a Mason & Hamlin that is the world’s third-largest handmade piano at 9 feet, 4 inches. As usual, his piano is tuned to the traditional Equal-Beating Victorian temperament for more precise sound.
BRO starts the concert with excerpts from the familiar Victory at Sea: Symphonic Scenario for Orchestra, written by Richard Rodgers and orchestrated by Robert Russell Bennett. This vibrant emotion-spanning piece is a medley from 12 short themes of Rodgers, enhanced by Bennett. It was the the theme music for NBC’s 26-part Victory at Sea series on naval battles of World War II. The series with the giant V in its opening frame first aired on TV in the early Fifties, but has been rebroadcast in recent decades.
BRO concludes with a theme of victory, in Beethoven’s triumphant-sounding Fifth Symphony in C Minor, Opus 67. Its famed four opening notes in unison represent the letter V in Morse code. As such, the notes were the musical introduction of British BBC broadcasts in World War II, to reflect optimism for eventual Allied victory over the Axis.
Tavernier said he wishes to compose “at some point.” For now, he is keying on his HHS studies. The all-A student tutors younger HHS students in math (through pre-calculus) and writing, such as in the HHS math center. His favorite current subject is “calculus. It’s different,” very conceptual as is music.
He studied at Brevard Music Center for the second summer in a row. Now, he is preparing for the upcoming concerts. He also practices four pieces from his World Masterwork concert Sept. 1, as a basis for auditions at four music conservatories in winter. After that, he will learn a “bunch of new stuff.”
Auditions vary in what is required, but he anticipates incorporating Liszt or Chopin, perhaps a “Bach piece, or a sonata.” On Sept. 1 he played movie themes for a change, also classical pieces of Sergei Rachmaninoff, Domenico Scarlatti, Robert Schumann and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Sonata F Major, KV 332.
Tavernier has narrowed his collegiate musical studies to conservatories of four schools, each of which have pledged to have their lead professor work one-on-one with the local youth. His Final Four has Eastman School of Music of the University of Rochester (N.Y.) with Prof. AlanChow, Florida State College of Music with Prof Read Gainsford who is from New Zealand, UNC-Chapel Hill School of the Arts with Russian native Prof. Dmitri Vorobiev, and University of Cincinnati College’s Conservatory of Music (CCM) with Prof. Michael Chertok.
Tavernier has visited UNC and FSU. He said he was impressed with each main professor’s unique personality and apparent teaching style and “focus.” His family has lived in Florida. He will check out Eastman and CCM when auditioning there, and hopes to choose a music school by May.
Meanwhile, he racks up more first place finishes in youth concerto competitions. He won one for pianists at Appalachian State in mid-October, playing a Mozart sonata and Liszt piece. “I’d have been happy to finish in the top three. The competition was really tough,” he said. He beat out contestants from Virginia and elsewhere. Then he was runner-up last Thursday, at Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C.
When on deck to compete, he will “clear my mind. It doesn’t have to be quiet. But being left alone helps.”
Lipinksy Auditorium seats 581 people. Seating is general admission for Eleven Eleven: Remembering Armistice. Ticket prices include $15, $10 for a veteran and $5 per student. They can be bought online at blueridgeorchestra.org