Honestly, I was done with the piano. I had gotten into UCLA on a full-ride piano performance scholarship – and seven weeks later, undeclared myself – performing with the UCLA Orchestra that spring as my last hurrah. While music really never left the system (film scoring and learning how to dance), with the piano – especially classical, I was done.
I ventured back to the Colburn School in 2002 with “A Concerto for Claire”. It was a NON-autobiographical love story between two pianists and a dancer - incorporating a few Colburn escapades from my youth (like getting caught chewing gum at a competition, using bengay on your arms and then going to the restroom and a verbatim lesson on how to play George Crumb that started something like, “I don’t think you understand George Crumb at all.” Do I have to pay Daniel Pollack residuals for quoting everything he said?)
Originally my intention was not to appear in “Claire”. But the decision was made that someone in a performance about pianists, should play the piano live. We incorporated little snippets of a handful of pieces, and the amount of practice it took to get four 30-second bits up to par was preposterous. My poor roommate at the time, FROberta, besides putting up with the furniture in our living room being rearranged every day for rehearsals, had to listen to me repeatedly run the 3rd movement of Beethoven’s “Pathetique” which she is convinced sounds like “Beauty and the Beast”… and can no longer stand to watch that movie. My few minutes of playing, combined with championship caliber ballroom & Latin dance from Mary Pinizzotto & Jim Desmond (Mary Murphy’s [SYTYCD] 1996 National All Around Championship partner), some stellar acting from the actual cast hired to act (Corrie Graham, Stewart Skelton, Theresa Barbosa-Adams, John Nicholas, Sheridan Edley and my forever creative collaborator & director, Sarah Lilly) – turned this into a great success (though still not a comeback to the piano).
In 2009, I read in the “L.A. Times” that the Lodestone Theatre Ensemble was doing “Closer Than Ever”. It was a Maltby & Shire musical I had seen in college, and had thought at the time that if I ever had the opportunity, this would be one show I would want to be the pianist in. So my friends Jennifer Aquino & Kipp Shiotani, who were a part of Lodestone, lobbied me into the show. From there, I embarked on a really amazing creative ride with Director Chil Kong, who was openly collaborative and seemed to challenge and inspire everyone to work harder to make this the best possible show; and with his wife, Erin Quill, of the original cast of Broadway’s “Avenue Q” – who MADE this production for me. For the first time working with her, I got to understand what collaborating with another musician was like as an adult. It was different every night – you had to listen – you had to know your part or it was going to fail (or she would make really great excuses for you) – every one of the numbers she sang you looked forward to… and maybe in those songs, I began to understand why musicians loved being musicians – and loved collaborating with other musicians.
Here is Erin Quill's final performance of "Life Story" that I believe was single handedly responsible for my return.
The reviews were great. LA WEEKLY's Neal Weaver called the music direction "crisp and inventive", and David C. Nichols of the LA TIMES wrote "Under Akira Nakano's fine musical direction, the choral sweep turns such group items as 'The March of Time' into showstoppers". This was particularly awesome since as a company we put the most time into this number. I believe things like "I hear twelve different out of tune notes up there, and there are only eight of you singing" came out of my mouth. And the most effective bit of music direction was to tell one of the leads to speak a note. We were awarded with a TIMES' Critic's Choice review. (Please excuse the audio blow outs on the last notes.)
Unfrozen Music 2010 was the real return to classical. Craig Shimahara puts on this annual event for architects who are musicians. I am not an architect – but work for one, Bill Fain. And a long time friend of mine, Rumi Shimasaki, was on the advisory board. Rumi and I grew up in youth orchestras together. I’m pretty sure we saw each other every Saturday for six or seven years – our parents shuttling us from one rehearsal in West Hollywood in the morning out to Northridge in the afternoon. We would also end up being carpool partners our freshman year at UCLA. Rumi left to go to Oberlin pursuing her violin career and is now on faculty at The Colburn School. I still have my film degree. Rumi was also sitting in the first violin section many times when I performed “Totentanz”.
So here I was, now about to reboot “Totentanz” a couple (17 or 18) years later. This was in no way like “Closer Than Ever”. What used to be muscle memory that could carry the day playing this piece was completely gone. In many ways I felt like an aging baseball pitcher. When younger, it was all power; and now as you get older, it’s all about control, refinement – and mastery. It was about really learning the material, and not skating by when it got difficult. And once my accompanist, Natalie Dalschaert, and I rehearsed – it was about the fun of collaboration. Unfrozen was a very comfortable, safe environment to come back to classical piano in – it was casual, the audience was composed of mainly friends – but largely it was about my first true piano performance as an adult.
Ever since Unfrozen, I had been telling Rumi that I wanted to do my own recital one day. And finally (probably out of exasperation), she told me to book a date. And so I did – nine months off in the future. But I also chose a program with pieces that I had started to learn way back when and never finished – and have picked up a couple of smaller new ones as well. Besides “Pictures at an Exhibition”, “Totentanz” and the “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini”, I am looking at a couple encore pieces and maybe a Prelude as well. And I realized that most of these were used in “A Concerto for Claire”. A nice full circle concept.
Undoubtedly Rumi has been my music advisor on this entire ride back into classical. She is frank and honest about the piece selection and largely this performance was helped shaped by her. A few others to thank as well. My music teachers who saw me through my rebellious years at Colburn: Heewon Kwon, Karen Lundgren, Warren Spaeth and Roberta Garten. Michael Sushel was my accompanist for my high school senior recital -- and for whatever reason has agreed to come back. I'm grateful. Cherie, my work wife at Johnson Fain, who probably has it worst when it comes to listening to me change my mind every day about what is going to happen on the program or with the marketing or the reception site or the caterer. (She literally started a log and documents each one of these.) One of my best friends, Kim, pretty much defines work ethic when it comes to the pursuit of artistic craft and who doesn’t hesitate to text “DO IT” when I write her that I don’t feel like practicing. My nephews, Kai and Shea – who are obviously most inspirational. I’m trying to get Kai to make a little cameo during the recital. And the sister and parents – who are doing the absolute best they can to be supportive without stressing me out.