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Cheryl North Interviews Leon Bates

ANG Newspapers Classical Music Column for April 5, 2002

Anyone who says that Kindergarten teachers don't have much impact on a child's life would have a bit of an argument with star pianist Leon Bates. According to Bates, it was his Kindergarten teacher in the Philadelphia Public School system, who initially inspired his love and interest in music.

Bates' upcoming performances of Gershwin's Concerto in F at 3 p.m. Sunday and 8 p.m. Tuesday with the Napa Symphony, followed by a Four Seasons Concerts recital with the Borealis Wind Quintet in Oakland at 7:30 p.m. April 13, will illustrate just how important that particular Kindergarten teacher was to the world of music.

"She played a lot of music for us in our class, both on the piano and on a record player," said Bates during a telephone interview last week. "There was a big old upright (piano) in our classroom and she would let us come up, one-by-one, and play on it. When it was my turn, I really got excited and would plink away as long as she would let me. She made me sensitive about what the piano could do. And -- it was in her class that I first heard Rachmaninoff." (Bates is now acclaimed as a major interpreter of the music of Rachmaninoff).

As an adult, Bates is admired for both his dazzling pianism and his advocacy for youth music education. He has been praised for his "extraordinary way of inspiring, motivating and delighting America's youth" and for "opening their minds and hearts to the love of music."

Inspired by his Kindergarten teacher, he began nagging his mom and dad until they found a teacher for him. By the age of six, he was taking both piano and violin lessons -- and making rapid progress.

"Although my parents weren't professional musicians, I heard music in my home as far back as I can remember. And it was ALL kinds of music -- Gospel, classical, pop, blues, and jazz," he explained in his deep, sonorous bass-baritone voice. "And best of all, they appreciated that it was important educationally for me to have musical training."

And, there was indeed a lot of good musical training available in the Philadelphia public schools during Bates' childhood in the 1950s. He recalled that there was both a school band and an orchestra as well as a choir, from his elementary school years on through his high school graduation. He accompanied and sang in the choir, played the tuba in the band, and performed piano solos with the orchestra. During high school, he had a rock and jazz combo as well.

"One of the best parts about our school music was that our programs were performed during school assemblies for all the other kids. We were a regular part of the school life. We were never ostracized as odd, because we had almost as much exposure to our friends as our school's athletes did," he said.

He maintained that these school assemblies were just as important to the non-musical kids as to the musical participants. "If my friends heard me play something by the Beatles or by Ramsey Lewis, they'd be much more interested when we played something by Beethoven -- and now, as adults, they're much more likely to buy tickets to concerts and cultural events."

Bates, who was as interested in athletics as music when he was in school, now devotes much time to weight lifting and physical fitness training. "There's something esthetic about body-building," he said. "It's easy to transfer my thoughts from music to weight-training. Both take tremendous discipline and strong powers of concentration. You have to learn to weed out distractions when you are lifting, just as you do when you are practicing piano or performing in a concert. One reinforces the other. Besides, I'm sure that my fitness has helped me play Rachmaninoff better," he quipped.

While it's quite remarkable for a concert pianist to be a high-achieving weight-lifter, it's perhaps even more remarkable for one to have been given the Raoul Wallenberg Humanitarian Award in New York City. Bates was honored with this important award in 1993 for his extensive work with children and music education. Besides a packed concert schedule that takes him throughout the world, he finds time to teach the young during 50 or more residencies in conjunction with his orchestral engagements and recitals in various U.S. cities each year. Because of these endeavors, he has also been awarded an Honorary Doctorate from Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia.

Known world-wide for both his sensitivity and his prowess as a pianist, Bates' prodigious repertoire includes all the Rachmaninoff and Beethoven Piano Concerti, most of Mozart's, as well as major works by Liszt, Chopin, Bartok, Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Ravel, and Poulenc. He has performed with the New York Philharmonic, the Vienna Symphony, the Philadelphia and Cleveland Orchestras and at Carnegie Hall, Hollywood Bowl, Kennedy Center and more.

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