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About this Piece

Stephen Prutsman has written and arranged music for many of the world’s leading concert artists and ensembles. He moves from classical to jazz to world music styles while exploring and seeking common ground in the music of all cultures, languages, and eras. In his early 20s he was the keyboard player for several art-rock bands, worked locally as a jazz pianist, and was the music arranger for a nationally syndicated televangelist program. In 1976 he won The Gong Show and in the 1990s he was a medal winner at the Tchaikovsky and Queen Elisabeth piano competitions. Prutsman’s long collaboration with Kronos Quartet has resulted in over 40 arrangements and compositions for them. As a pianist or arranger outside of the classical music world he has collaborated with such diverse personalities as Tom Waits, Rokia Traore, Joshua Redman, Sigur Rós, and Asha Bhosle. From 2004-2007, Prutsman was Artistic Partner with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, where he wrote several new works for the orchestra, arranged music for world music collaborations, led concertos from the keyboard, and conducted works of living composers. Recently, Prutsman was appointed Artistic Director of the Cartagena International Music Festival, South America’s largest festival of its kind.

Many years ago my good friend Dawn Upshaw introduced me to the poetry of Billy Collins via a gift, a collection entitled The Art of Drowning. Within this volume a short group, “Piano Lessons,” particularly resonated with me and I immediately envisioned in my own ‘mind-theater’ a song cycle which would complement these poems. Fast forward to early 2010, when Emanuel Ax and Dawn embraced this idea and welcomed the chance to explore this little vision of mine in recital.

Each of the texts employs a two-part structure: an observation (piano or music related) followed by an interpretation or further explanation of that observation. In composing the work, I have used a similar device in music, shifting musical character when the perspective changes. Though there are no direct quotations from the music of Chopin and Schumann, the listener may observe a nod or two in their direction, along with references to the great American song tradition (of which I am an ardent admirer), along with a hint of ‘musique française’ (without which, I'm afraid to say, Americana would never have been the same...).

I did not grow up with a grand piano. My first instrument was a Betsy Ross upright, but I still treasure it and would not part with it for anything in the world.  No other piece of ‘furniture’ can stir such bittersweet memories. The poetry of Billy Collins transports us to a time of precious days and evenings of practice (that unending process of trial and error). Maybe it also aligns us with a glimpse of a few cherished moments of success, along with that blessed little ‘house performance’ for Mom or Dad, uncle or sister jumping in... tinkering away....

This curious and mysterious beast with its enormous smile occupies a large part of our collective heart. The song cycle is dedicated to those most patient of people: Our piano teachers.

– Stephen Prutsman (with Carol Yaple)