World-renowned pianist and composer Haskell Small, hailed by England’s Musical Timesfor his “dazzlingly prodigious technique” and heralded by The Washington Post for his “technical prowess,” will be performing Sunday, April 13, at 6 p.m. at All Saints Episcopal School, 4108 Delaware St. in Beaumont.
Admission to the concert is free, but donations are accepted.
Small is chair of the piano department at Washington Conservatory of Music in Washington D.C., and has played at concert halls all over the world including major European capitals, South America, Japan and China, and in such American venues as Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, and the Spoleto Festival USA.
Small described playing at the Carnegie Hall, the world’s most famous concert hall, as both terrifying and wonderful.
“With the acclaimed acoustics there, it was pretty amazing to be able to just touch the keys,” Small said in an interview with The Examiner.
Small — who has received numerous awards and has been featured in the nationally broadcast PBS Special A Celebration of the Piano — is fascinated with music that is primarily quiet, spacious and of a mystical nature. He has recorded a number of CDs, among them Federico Mompou’s Musica Callada, for MSR Classics, a Gershwin disc for Centaur, a children’s CD with narrator Robert Aubry Davis for Ongaku, and a disk of his smaller chamber works and Bach’s Goldberg Variations, both for 4Tay. He is currently preparing a recording of the Bach Partitas and also a new disc of his piano solo music.
His newest release, The Rothko Room: Journeys in Silence,is in one continuous movement, but falls into four distinct parts, loosely paralleling the four paintings in the Phillips Collection’s Rothko room, while offering a musical narrative of painter Mark Rothko’s life journey. Rothko was one of the most famous postwar American artists and is generally identified as an abstract expressionist (emphasis on spontaneous, automatic or subconscious creation).
“I became passionate about Rothko early on,” Small said. “When I wandered into the Tate (Gallery) in London … and I saw the red series of Rothko and was blown away by the liveliness of these pieces, I saw … pure animation migrating off the canvas.”
Small said after falling in love with Rothko’s paintings, he felt like he needed to write music that accomplished two goals.
“To attempt to paint in sound, to … mimic the experience of the contemplative, meditative aspect of Rothko. … And at the same time, to create a musical narrative of Rothko’s life. He was a fascinating man. The music attempts to show the different periods of his life — his exuberance, his mysticism, and ultimately his death,” Small said.
Small has played the piano since he was a young boy, following in the footsteps of his mother, who was trained as both a classical and jazz pianist.
“I grew up mostly playing by ear and frustrating several … teachers trying to learn classical, which I just wasn’t interested in early on in my life,” he said. “Even though there isn’t a convention expecting pianists to play music by memory, I would do it anyway even though it terrifies me. By really working hard as hell, I managed to be able to play pieces … to really learn the material to where it is part of me.”
It was later in his life that Small fell in love with the music of famous 18th- and 19th-century composers such as Bach, Beethoven and Mozart, and began to enjoy impressionist pieces.
“I discovered the Pathétique Sonata (Piano Sonata No. 8) of Beethoven,” Small said, “which to me was a dramatic, eye-opening experience. Several other pieces caught my interest, and I couldn’t get enough of it ever since.”
Small did not limit the musical styles that have molded his work to classical music only, however, citing the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix as major influences as well.
“I’ve weaved my esoteric style from a combination of things,” he said.
Small is also an accomplished composer, often performing his own works. He has received commissions from such organizations as the Washington Ballet and the Paul Hill Chorale, and he was the winner of the 1999 Marin Ballet Dance Score Competition.
In 2007, the noted pianist Soheil Nasseri commissioned Small to write Lullaby of War, a setting of six war poems that has since been performed in New York, Washington, and several cities in Germany and Poland.
“I had always felt in my hippie days an idealistic feeling against war, and I’ve always been passionate about wanting to make a statement about this artistically,” Small said. “I had been thinking of an idea that was like a prayer, and that led me to the idea of kind of a prayer for peace or a prayer a soldier would have on the battlefield. I put all this together and decided that if I had some specific poetry, this would help to inspire more specific ideas of music. I recalled the poem ‘War is Kind’ by Stephen Crane, and this was just perfect. It is the most sardonic statement about war ever made. The notion of ‘how can war be kind’ is an impossible thought to comprehend. It was the perfect inspiration for what I wanted to create.”
Small said it is important for people who are caught in the everyday grind of repetition (going to work and school, running errands, fighting traffic, among other necessary tasks) to slow down every once in a while and enjoy the finer things in life such as classical music and the arts.
“I believe it opens windows to parts of us … that we don’t have time for,” he said. “There is so much going on inside of each of us. Slow down, smell the roses and experience whole new worlds of the interior.”
Southeast Texans are offered the opportunity to slow down Palm Sunday, April 13, and discover their inner self through Small’s beautiful piano music.
“This specific music is very spiritual and meditative,” Small said. “The experience of listening inwardly, letting down and being willing to think actively to participate. The music that I am playing is not the type of music people normally associate with a piano concert. What I’d like for the audience to get from it is … to get a taste of the eternal. Music, in my mind — it’s purpose, it’s mission, it’s meaning — is to transport us somewhere we can’t be in everyday life.”
More information about Small’s Journeys in Silenceproject can be found on his website at haskellsmall.com/journeys-in-silence.