Pianist brings virtuosity, history to Joplin recital

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Feb. 9—The definition of the word "recital" is important to pianist Steven Spooner.

More than a concert, a recital features a focus on one instrument presenting a series of works by a performer who has memorized them. It's a definition tied to history — another thing Spooner values.

"In the 1830s, most concerts were variety shows, with a singer, or a poet, or a variety of other groups would play," Spooner said. "(Composer Franz) Liszt had such a magnetic personality, and he famously said, 'A recital is me.' He started that tradition, and it spread to every other instrument, and lives to this day."

Spooner will present such a recital Friday in Joplin, then teach a master class for aspiring pianists Saturday. Both appearances are presented by Connect2Culture.

The award-winning pianist has earned acclaim and respect from critics and music aficionados across the country for his proficiency, talent and personality, placing him in the same vein as historic virtuosos such as Liszt. Having studied and played across the world, Spooner brings a dynamic reputation to the stage of the Harry M. Cornell Arts & Entertainment Complex, and to his recorded works, of which there are more than 30.

His program for Friday features a walk through music history and features works from composers who embodied the spirit of a recital. It includes works by Domenico Scarlatti, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Frederic Chopin and Liszt, as well as Spooner's transcription of the Queen classic "We Are the Champions."

He will also share his story of learning piano, from what hooked him on the instrument as a child in New Orleans to how he studied in the former Soviet Union.

"Before I started piano, my main hobby was beating up kids who played piano," Spooner said. "I was a typical kid who every piano teacher hated seeing come to their door."

When he was about 10, he had what he called a "Damascus road conversion." After a piano teacher tried several tactics, her last-ditch effort was to send Spooner home with a recording of Chopin selections played by Arthur Rubinstein and a message of how this is far too difficult for Spooner to play.

The teacher also gave him sheet music of the full composition — not the easy version in educational books — saying that this is what the music looks like. With a score that might as well have been hieroglyphs, he started listening to the record.

He was hooked.

"That was the end," Spooner said of the experience. "It set me on a completely different path. Part of it was that I hadn't been exposed to music like that. Its impact was quite strong."

A professor of piano at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University, he has studied at Indiana University, Tbilisi Conservatory and the Moscow Conservatory, the last happening when Russia was the former Soviet Union. He has also studied across Europe, and in 2008 was awarded an Ivory Classics Foundation Prize that gave him the chance to study Liszt with pianist Earl Wild.

His time spent in the USSR during the Cold War was incredibly formative because of how important the piano is to Russians. One of his teachers knew composer Dmitri Shostakovich, he said.

In addition to playing and teaching, he has also served as faculty for many summer festivals and is artistic director of the Chicago International Competition and Festival.

But he is not done learning, he said. He continues his study into piano works, including the Chopin piece that hooked him.

"The piano is an instrument that can always be played better," Spooner said. "It can lead to a life of great fulfillment. In my case, it led to a life of adventure."