One of the first things we learn about concert pianist Leon Bates is that he balances his time between the performing venue and the local gym, no matter where he is. It’s a discipline the native Philadelphian learned around age 20 as a young musician and has since found necessary in working with the mentality and mechanics of music. But don’t let his Herculean appearance fool you. He’s solid inside as well, especially when he starts talking about arts education in the public school system.
If it weren’t for his kindergarten teacher giving him an opportunity to tickle the ivory keys of the upright piano in class, Bates said he doubts he would be where he is today.
“She would play the classroom piano for us and record for us. She invited us to play and be little soloists,” he said. “It opened my door. …I am extremely grateful that music existed in school.”
Bates’ parents enrolled him in piano and violin lessons at age 6, realizing the importance of musical training as part of his education. By the time he entered high school, he was well on his way even studying the tuba and being involved with the All-City Choir, Orchestra and Band. The best part, he said, was performing during school assemblies for all the kids and having performance as a part of school life.
“It’s one thing to study theory, but it’s another to develop skills and be able to showcase them in performance,” he said.
Bates regrets the fact that his teacher may never have known about the seed she planted in her young student back in the 1950s. He went on to graduate from Temple University’s Boyer College of Music and has toured the world performing with major symphonies and conductors. He calls it “a tremendous privilege” whenever he is invited to visit a school and lead a master class to promising young musicians.
“I can bring about positive change and share the sheer pleasure of music and what it means to perform,” he said.
Lehigh Valley audiences will have a chance to hear a performance by the world-renowned pianist as he plays Rachmaninoff on Sunday, April 15 at 7 p.m. He’ll join Conductor Donald Spieth and the 70-plus members of the Moravian College Community Orchestra on the South Campus at Foy Hall in Bethlehem. Bates will perform “Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18” by the late 19th century Russian romantic composer. A pre-concert lecture on the performance will be held at 4 p.m. The orchestra will round out the evening with Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy” and Arnold’s “Four Scottish Dances, Op. 59.”
Bates calls Rachmaninoff one of his favorite composers because of his “sing-able melodies that stay in your ears. He was very expressive, very emotional and a most capable pianist and composer. When he played, people were captured by it. He made the piano sing, and that is our requirement for Sunday’s audience – that they leave whistling the tunes that still linger in their head.”
It won’t be the first time for Bates to be paired with Maestro Spieth, however. Their association dates back to the late 1980s, when Spieth was conductor of then-Lehigh Valley Chamber Orchestra and Bates performed a few times as guest piano soloist. Spieth calls Bates “very humble, and a very serious musician about his art.” Bates makes an analogy between vocalist and instrumentalist in describing Speith, calling him a “good conductor” who not only can work with a vocalist in singing the spoken word, but who also can make an instrumentalist “sing” with their instrument.
Bates said he is inspired by such classical and jazz artists as Emmanuel Ax, Keith Jarrett, Billy Childs, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, to name some. He also is enthusiastic and honored to be working on a project later this month involving the music of Dr. George Walker. In 1996, Dr. Walker was the first black composer to receive the Pulitzer Prize in Music for his work, “Lilacs for Voice and Orchestra,” premiered by the Boston Symphony.
I, as a writer, won’t forget the memorable performance Bates gave back in October 2001, at Allentown Symphony Hall. He was one of many recipients that evening for the Governor’s Awards for the Arts presentation, just one month after the terrorist attack on 9/11. He received the Pennsylvania Artist of the Year. Gov. Tom Ridge was on hand in one of his final appearances as Pennsylvania’s leader before assuming the position of new anti-terrorism chief to head the new Office of Homeland Security under President Bush. It was a two-hour event complete with prayer, performance and perseverance on the part of each recipient who gave testimony on how the arts played a vital role in his or her development.
Bates had said in his testimony, “Art is something to be shared, from wide-eyed first-graders to skeptical high schoolers. …All I have been taught has been a preparation for this journey.” He touched everyone’s heart when he concluded the program with a passionate rendition of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” of which he prefaced with “for the hope and future of the nation.” Bates recalled that evening when I brought it up and called it “an important kind of adhesive in a very tragic moment.”
Bates believes children are our hope and future and, in concluding this interview, stressed that “we all have a part in the education of the next generation.”
For further info: moravian.edu/music
The long-awaited community-based project, “A Resting Place” by Alison Carey, premiers this weekend by Bethlehem’s Touchstone Theatre, and marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. The year-long project involved the Moravian College Theatre Company in association with the Historic Bethlehem Partnership. Last season, Touchstone inaugurated the commemoration with “The Whitman Piece,” and now closes it with “A Resting Place.” The project draws on the stories of individuals who lived and died in Bethlehem during the years of the War Between the States. Carey is the playwright of Touchstone’s acclaimed “Steelbound.”
Performances begin Friday, April 13 at 6 p.m., at Moravian College’s North Campus, Priscilla Payne Hurd Academic Complex Patio, followed by a panel discussion on “How the Civil War Affects Us Today,” in the Haupert Union Building. “A Resting Place” will be presented Saturday, April 14 at 1 p.m., at the South Bethlehem Greenway, and 6 p.m., on the lawn of Packer Chapel at Lehigh University. Sunday’s presentations are at 1 p.m., at Bethlehem City Hall Plaza, and 6 p.m., at Colonial Industrial Quarters. Guests are encouraged to bring a lawn chair or blanket and umbrella, in the case of light rain.
Guest lecturer, musician and historian David Kincaid will share words and songs of the era’s musical history, including demonstrations played by the Civil War expert himself, on Sunday, April 15 from 7:45 to 9 p.m. at Central Moravian Church’s Old Chapel. Kincaid is a Civil War “Irish Brigade” re-enactor, “Gods and General” movie consultant, accomplished Civil War era musician and great-great grandson of an Irish-American Corporal who fought with Company I, 63rd Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers in the Union’s Army.
For further info: touchstone.org
Open Studio at Huxley Home Arts, 67 N. Fourth St., Easton, is showcasing the work of four women artists -- Susan Huxley, Claudia McGill, Robin Phelps and Maryann Riker – on Saturday and Sunday, April 14 and 15, from noon to 5 p.m. Works will include fiber, photography, ceramics, collage, jewelry and artists books.