Cheryl North :: Interviews

Cheryl North Interviews John Bayless

Classical Music Column for the November 3, 2006 ANG PREVIEW Section

Improvisation, in the minds of most of today�s classical music mavens, is usually limited to jazz venues, piano bars, or someone�s living room.

This is to say, that if any unfamiliar or not-written-in-the-original-score notes are played-- or if one of the written-in notes doesn�t get played � there�s something wrong with the performance. Critics criticize and audiences grimace. If such faux pas were to be made by such performers as violinist Joshua Bell, pianists Richard Goode or Evgeny Kissin, or any number of other major classical artists, we would be shocked.

But this hasn�t always been the case. Back in the 18th century, people were downright thrilled to hear J.S. Bach introduce a simple hymn tune on the organ, only to follow its first iteration with five to 20 minutes of improvisations that often taxed the organ to its utmost capacity and dazzled admiring members of the congregation. One of Bach�s several sons is even recorded to have said that his papa was at his best when improvising.

When Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms came along, the musical literati were positively in love with the �variation� form, which consisted of a composer or performer taking a given theme and then writing or playing as many �variations� on it that he could conjure up. Franz Liszt secured his international �matinee idol� fame by participating in a number of public competitions during which he and another virtuosic pianist staged a �duel� to see which of them could dream up the most original, and technically dazzling improvisations of a particular theme during a concert. The outcome of the �duel� was usually determined by audience applause � and Liszt usually won.

Except for the occasional semi-improvised cadenza in a piano concerto, this exciting, on-the-spot art form is all but lost on serious classical concert stages of today. Or is it?

After a chat with pianist John Bayless, who called in from Tokyo last Saturday eve, I feel reassured that the risky art of �classical� improvisation might just regain some of its past pizzazz. Bayless will be the soloist in Gershwin�s Rhapsody in Blue next week during the Oakland East Bay Symphony�s season-opening performance at 8 p.m. Nov. 10 at the Paramount Theatre, 2121 Broadway, in Oakland.

He is known to audiences worldwide for his many recordings, including the number-one-Billboard Magazine-rated The Puccini Album � Arias for the Piano, released about a decade ago, and more recently, for his CD�s on the Angel label, Romantica, a collection that includes his improvisations on themes and arias from Cavalleria Rusticana and La Wally; Vissi D�Arte; Una Furtiva Lagrima; Mattinata; and more, as well as The Movie Album � Classical Pictures.

�My forte is improvisation,� he cheerily announced when I spoke to him from his Tokyo hotel on what was (for him) a bright Sunday morning across the international dateline. He seemed a person of great charm and graciousness as he proceeded to explain that he�s been performing a concert entitled �Amadeus Live� all over Japan this past month. He loves performing in Japan, a place he says, where there is much respect and courtesy and very little crime.

�They are in love with Western classical music,� he added. �They support some 3,000 concert halls scattered throughout Japan, most of which seat 1200 to 1800 people and have Hamburg Steinway pianos.�

His "Amadeus Live" program, he explained, has three parts, about 25 minutes each. During the first third of each concert, he dresses in 18th century Mozart-like garb, and performs favorite Mozart masterworks on the piano. Then, during the second third of the concert, he includes operatic singers to perform various of Mozart�s most beloved arias with his piano accompaniment.

The third �third� is given over to pure improvisation. About a dozen folk-like Japanese songs, picked because they are familiar to almost every Japanese, are listed in the program. He asks people in the audience which on the list they would like to hear, after which he plays their choices in the style of Beethoven, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Ravel, or Gershwin.

�The audience is delighted,� Bayless said. �They�re actually participating � and since I�m improvising, there�s a freshness about it that comes out differently each time I play it.�

I asked him if he planned to include a few of his own improvisatory touches in next week�s Rhapsody in Blue in Oakland.

�Oh, I�ve added bits here and there,� he revealed. �I�ve played it every since I was a teenager � in Aspen, Tanglewood, Hollywood Bowl, even the San Francisco Symphony during its summer concerts. My grandma used to put an old Oscar Levant recording of the Rhapsody on our record player and we listened to the Paul Whitman Orchestra�s first recordings of it as well. It�s one of the first and best fusions of the classical form with American jazz, after all � and that makes it very appealing for improvisation.�

Born in the little town of Borger, Texas (near Amarillo), Bayless told me that he has been playing the piano since he was four. �My mom, a singer, was my first teacher. When I was a kid, I remember running up to the piano almost every Sunday after church to play � and improvise � on the hymns,� he said. When he was 15, he went to the Aspen School of Music, and then on to study with Adele Marcus at Juilliard where he further honed his pianistic skills.

There was a daunting cloud over his youth, however. He was born with a congenital kidney problem which began to seriously threaten his life from age six on. By the time he was 20, he had had eight major operations.

"I deal with its effects almost every day � if it wasn�t for music and my faith, I wouldn�t have survived,� he said. �Fortunately, I�m very happy doing what I�m doing.�

Right after his Oakland appearance, Bayless will take off for a white Christmas tour back to the heartland states of Nebraska, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Indiana, and South Dakota before returning to the Bay Area, where he now lives.

Michael Morgan will be at the helm conducting the OEBS during the opening night concert at 8 p.m. Nov. 10 at the Paramount Theatre, 2121 Broadway, in Oakland. The concert is entitled �Made in America,� and besides Bayless playing Gershwin�s Rhapsody in Blue, will include Aaron Copland�s wonderful Symphony No. 3, which includes his famous Fanfare for the Common Man in its final movement.

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