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Christopher Taylor, Pianist

Pianist Christopher Taylor has big shoes to fill on the UW School of Music faculty. He has just stepped into the vacancy created by the retirement of Howard Karp, the magnificent pianist who has been a local institution since 1972. On Sunday, Oct. 22, Taylor will show Madison what he has to offer in his first local concert appearance (4 p.m. at Mills Hall in the UW Humanities Building), playing a very interesting recital of music by Beethoven, Brahms and Messiaen. To judge by the one recording of Taylor's playing I've heard, William Bolcom's Twelve New Etudes, he should have little problem with the notes, for most of the Bolcom pieces are fearsomely demanding.

A native of Boulder, Colorado, Taylor has a list of accomplishments that are remarkable for one so young -- he is 30 -- beginning with his first public recitals at age 10 and continuing to ever-increasing critical acclaim. In 1990 he was one of the first four recipients of the Gilmore Young Artists Award, a scholarship for exceptionally promising American pianists aged 22 or younger. Soon after he won the first prize in the William Kapell International Piano Competition. In 1993, he was the Bronze Medalist in the ninth quadrennial Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, the first American to reach the finals of this important contest since 1981. In 1996 he was awarded a coveted Avery Fisher Career Grant, designed to give professional assistance and recognition to instrumentalists who have demonstrated potential for significant careers as soloists.

Also impressive is Taylor's having graduated summa cum laude from Harvard University with a degree in mathematics. He is still studying, but music rather than mathematics: he's about halfway toward completing a doctorate of music arts degree at the New England Conservatory of Music. Meanwhile, in addition to his teaching duties at the UW, he continues to concertize.

With all this under his belt, it's natural to wonder why Taylor would seek a university faculty position at this stage of his career. "I was already teaching, at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo," says Taylor, who's married with an infant daughter. "And since my wife, Denise, has only the dissertation remaining to complete her doctorate in musicology from the University of Michigan, and we both wanted some stability, peace and quiet, as well as a change of scene, the opening at Madison was serendipitous. I grew up in a college setting, where life is not hectic, and I enjoy teaching because there's so much to learn from my students, so I'm looking forward now to a more settled existence."

Taylor is tall and lanky, intensely focused and thoughtful but also friendly and easygoing. Sitting in the warm afternoon sun at a State Street sidewalk cafe, sipping our respective tea and coffee, I found him very articulate on the subject of his pending program, which had struck me as outwardly less flashy than those typically presented by young virtuosos facing a new audience.

The opening piece, Beethoven's Sonata No. 6 in F Major, Op. 10, No. 2, is seldom heard in concert programs. It's not particularly difficult technically, and musically it's rather straightforward. "I wanted an upbeat, positive start," Taylor said. "What's distinctive about this sonata is that it's not Beethoven shaking his fists at the fates as he does later, but rather a more Haydnesque work, brusque and full of good humor, showing the composer's lighthearted side."

The second work does indeed offer some fireworks. Brahms' Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24 invites pianistic excess because some of the 25 variations are very tough to play and afford a temptation to show off. But it seems unlikely that Taylor will, to use his phrase, "bash people's brains out" with the faster and louder variations, not to mention the very large, thick-textured fugue, which by any measure is a welter of notes.

The French composer Olivier Messiaen, who died in 1992, has arguably not yet achieved the audience acclaim he deserves. For one thing, he's not easy to categorize; his works comprise Catholic religious intensity, the theme of love and an abiding interest in nature, especially the sounds of birds. He also regarded timbre and color as equal in importance to pitch and rhythm. So it's of special interest that Taylor will play the first ten of Messiaen's Vingt regards sur l'enfant Jésus (20 views of the baby Jesus), written in 1944. He will present the complete set in New York in February.

The ten Messiaen pieces Taylor will play on Sunday run the gamut from serene introspection to furious activity. "The bird calls that make their appearance in Nos. 4 and 8 are amazingly realistic," Taylor says. "Overall, Messiaen counters the stereotypes of atonal music with joy, fervor and passion."

Isthmus, October, 2000
Copyright 2000 Jess Anderson

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