Friday evening, I went to the best concert of my life. Since then, I have been struggling to describe the experience, but I will attempt to do so here. When asked by a friend, I described it as “Greatness in many dimensions.”
I watched one of my great musical inspirations, George Winston, perform at a community college in Brainerd, MN. I’ve been listening to his music since infancy. My mom used to put on a George Winston record to get me to go to sleep at bedtime. He is a master pianist who is able to conjure sounds from the instrument that you would never have believed possible. He does more than create and compose music – he commands the soundspace like no other performer. His tones and melodies are sublime and masterful.
Who I Thought He Was
Until this year, when I actually looked him up online and met him in person, I had always assumed that he was a concert pianist, complete with tuxedo, coat tails and white gloves, who had studied under the European masters, received multiple doctorates and had become well recognized in the classical music realm. After collecting his vast accolades, he embarked on a quest to push the boundaries of the piano instrument. As a result of his intensive studies, he composed and recorded his “Autumn” and “Winter Into Spring” albums in the 1980s, creating a new genre of piano music – the new age/impressionist movement. I thought that he had taken a similar route as Rachmaninoff or Leonard Bernstein.
Another musician I looked up to from the classical realm was Valdimir Horowitz. My mom had a video recording of “Horowitz In Moscow” that I would watch all the time as a tot. The “Horowitz In Moscow” record tied with Winston’s “Winter Into Spring” as my top requested bedtime music. Horowitz died in 1989.
Actually, I began my internet search of Winston because I was wondering what became of my other favorite pianist. Not only did I discover that George Winston was still alive, but that he was still performing live in concert. I was shocked to discover that he would be coming to Minnesota. But performing in Brainerd? Such a titan of music belonged in the big city venues of Orchestra Hall or the Ordway!
Believe it or not, I’m not a super-duper fan of concerts. Yes, I enjoy seeing the band and hearing the songs, but oftentimes the songs are performed differently live. The bands tend to try too hard, or not hard enough, to perform the songs as they were recorded for the audience. I love hearing the songs on CD, but I am often disappointed when songs are performed live. Many times the acoustic subtleties are lost and I’m left wishing for more. Typically, this is compensated by the performer/audience relationship that develops over the course of the concert.
George Winston is aware of the acoustic loss and understands that live music can not compare to the technical perfection that recording provides. Instead of retreating with his music, he boldly changed the songs that I had memorized so well. He kept the basic shapes and forms of the song, a core melody with a flourish for instance, but he ventured out with each song to create something unique and new. After becoming acquainted with the space, he would use the space to control his sound. He uses both sound and quiet, loud and soft, harsh, percussive key banging and soft, gentle plucks of the strings. The audience respected his use of silence and space and held their applause until he signaled he was done.
Even though he is a master pianist, he brought other instruments with him. He played one song on the harmonica. My jaw dropped when I saw that his skills carried over to that instrument as well. He used a technique I had never heard or seen before: he played chords on a harmonica and melody simultaneously! The other instrument he played was a slack-key guitar. His fingering was very precise so as to control the overtones that the instrument generated from the strums and plucks. It was subtle and elegant.
Not only did he perform his impressionist work, but he also opened up his range with some blues and an older form of ragtime piano called stride piano, where the left hand plays the bass line and chord in an “oom-cha, oom-cha” sort of way. His first song was a warm up song in the stride style, a song of many repetitions to warm up the fingers, and my mom said that his warm up song could have been used as a finale!
I was very lucky in where I sat. My mom found tickets in the front row, stage left, where I could watch his hands strike the keys. During the concert, I practiced some of the moves I was watching. It was very educational. For instance, I had heard his piece “Woods” and I always assumed he stretched and lifted with his pinkies to reach the high and low notes. In reality, he actually uses his right hand to cross over his left to achieve all of the sounds and notes.
Who George Winston Really Is
As it turns out, George Winston is even better than the person that I envisioned. He is left-handed, for starters. Instead of being classically trained in Europe, he lives in Montana and studied jazz down in Florida and Louisiana before beginning on the piano. He is a man who has many musical heroes. The program lists at least 32 musicians that he models himself after. He performs in his socks so that he has better control over the pedals at the piano and he has a landing pad to place his heels so that his feet do not interfere with his sound.
Throughout the performance, we noticed that his glasses hung loose on the side of his head. Before the intermission, I thought this was just the eccentricities of genius. What my mom and I discovered was that he had no right ear! It makes me awestruck to believe that this genius who mastered the waves of sound only has a single ear. The things he can hear with his ear! It is just amazing. It made me think back to an old dilemma. If you had to lose your sense of sight or your sense of hearing, which would you lose? My choice would be to keep my sense of hearing and lose my sight.
George Winston is a cat person. He is also a very kind person. The proceeds from his CD sales and his concert were going to a local food shelf to help the hungry. He dedicates his CDs to causes, such as helping after Hurricane Katrina, benefiting 9/11 victims or protecting the Louisiana wetlands.
After The Concert
Mom and I stayed after the concert was over and waited by the stage to meet George Winston. I was in shock after this performance. There was a young woman named Lora who was also stunned, but she was as hyper as a puppy to meet Mr. Winston. She was expressing on the outside what I was feeling on the inside. The patrons of the performance were also there with their families and grandchildren. There was a couple who were positively geeky for him. There was also a young man who asked very technical questions. Finally, the owner of one of the major local resorts, Craguns, was there.
Mr. Winston was very humble, patient and gracious. He told some jokes and answered some questions. When he heard that my mom and I travelled were from the twin cities to see him, he said, “Oh! Mini Apple Sauce? I’m going there on December 22.”
Lora was very hyper and wanted to share her life story. Her favorite bands were Tool, Metalica and George Winston. She has been engaged for 10 years, but she offered to marry Mr. Winston that night. She had a gift on her phone, but it was dead. She asked if I could take her picture, which I did and I e-mailed it to her. She inadvertently wanted to monopolize the time with Mr. Winston, but my mom and I helped occupy her to help free up Mr. Winston to make the rounds.
The geeky couple gave him a gift of a Grumpy Cat doll. They also filmed him with their giant iPad. “What is that?” George Winston asked, “It has a big apple on the back.” When told it was an iPad, he responded, “I don’t really watch TV, use computers or the internet. My assistant wants me to use Facebook more, but I’d rather do other things. I prefer talking to people in person.”
The young man asked what sorts of things he places on the strings of the piano, and Mr. Winston said, “Just my hand tonight.” He also asked how he could create such soft and beautiful sounds from the piano, but Mr. Winston responded, “The piano is not a soft instrument. It is a percussion instrument that has to be beaten to get the sound out of it. You have to press down on the keys to make the hammers strike the strings.” It was a profound observation from a composing master known for his subtlety.
Immediately after the concert, my mom asked me how I enjoyed it. I said, “This was amazing. The best concert of my life. I’m still trying to process it right now. Remember Vladimir Horowitz? How he was my favorite? Well, I may never see him perform, but I got to see my #2 favorite perform tonight.”
Silly mom repeated what I had said to George Winston. I was so embarrassed. He laughed and said, “I’d rather be where I am today than where Vladimir Horowitz is today.” It was an amazing save! My mom and I got along so well with George Winston that people thought that we were family.
The owner of Craguns offered to buy him dinner at Perkins (one of the only places open), but he turned it down. He wanted to stay up and work on more music. In the end, the theater manager walked up to George Winston and asked, “You know how to turn off the lights, right?” I got my picture and autograph. My mom gave him her information. When we left, the only people there were Mr. Winston and Lora. My mom wonders what became of Lora.
Mom and I bought 3 CDs: Forest, Night Divides the Day – The Music of the Doors, and Gulf Coast Blues & Impressions 2. The thing that captures my attention about the CDs is that they are designed in such as way so as you feel like you’re listening to a record with a front side and a back side; an A-side and a B-side. On the drive back, we listed to Forest and Night Divides the Day and I remained in awe of his technical skill with the piano. This was the most inspiration concert of my life. I learned so much and I have an understanding of how to develop my skills further.
My one regret is that I didn’t buy his harmonica CD. I had an opportunity at the intermission, but I just stood in front of my chair in shock for most of the intermission, processing everything I had heard. I finally went to the bathroom, but I nearly missed the chance to get back in the theater, because they were closing the doors when I got out. Had I been more alert, I could have purchased the harmonica CD.
I think the thing that inspires me the most from meeting George Winston is how similar we are. We both hail from the jazz background. His view of music goes beyond the notes on the page. We share the “mistakes make masterpieces” philosophy.
One thing I could learn from him is to find more artists to inspire me. He listed over 32 musicians on his program. When my mom told him that I also play piano, bass and flute, he recommended that I look into Jimmy Smith to develop my talents. I can only imagine what George Winston’s record collection looks like.