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Pianist Adolphe entertains, educates

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Bruce Adolphe, aka the Piano Puzzler on National Public Radio's "Performance Today," comes to Charleston for a FestivALL concert at Christ Church United Methodist on Sunday. He also will teach a free Master Class at West Virginia State University on Monday.
WANT TO GO?An Afternoon with Bruce Adolphe, The Piano PuzzlerWHEN: 4 p.m. SundayWHERE: Christ Church United Methodist, 1221 Quarrier St.COST: $25INFO: 304-344-5389 or www.festivallcharleston.comAdolphe will teach a free Master Class followed by an improvisation/lecture from 10 a.m. to noon Monday in West Virginia State University's Ferrell Hall. CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Bruce Adolphe's first piano teacher said he would never be a musician because he wasn't musical.The teacher, whom Adolphe described as callous and sarcastic, would come into his house smelling of cigar smoke, would hog the piano bench and wouldn't play the music on the page. Adolphe's parents soon hired another local music teacher. Her report about Adolphe's abilities was the opposite. "[She] said she had very few students who were so involved and so engaged in music," he said.Today, Adolphe plays on National Public Radio's "Performance Today," where he invents quizzes for "Piano Puzzlers" by rewriting a well-known tune using the style of a famous composer. He's also a composer and author and serves as resident lecturer and the director of family concerts for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and the composer-in-residence at the Brain and Creativity Institute in Los Angeles.Adolphe will perform at 4 p.m. Sunday at Christ Church United Methodist as part of FestivALL. His performance, titled "An Afternoon with Bruce Adolphe, the Piano Puzzler," will include piano puzzlers, discussion and improvisations based on audience members' suggestions, along with some highlights of his other work.The show is geared toward all ages, and Adolphe said he makes an effort to include humor in his performance."I tend to be funny," he said. "Usually, I can't help it."
Adolphe's comedic side reveals itself quickly, when he talks about his 47-year-old parrot, Polly Rhythm. The parrot sings opera, and he prefers certain voices to repertoire. Adolphe said Polly likes sopranos, particularly those Adolphe listened to when he was small, such as Beverly Sills and Elly Ameling."He has a pretty refined sound, for a bird," Adolphe said.Polly Rhythm entered Adolphe's life around the time he started developing an interest in music. There was no piano in his house, so he used the breakfast table as a makeshift instrument. Soon, his parents got him a toy piano and, when he was 6, they purchased a small piano for the house.Just a few years later, Adolphe started to view himself as a composer. When he was 10, he started writing pieces for his piano teacher.Adolphe played a slew of instruments during his childhood, including the piano, guitar, bassoon and banjo. He also attended the Kinhaven Music School in Vermont during the summer and participated in Julliard's Pre-College Division.After skipping several grades and graduating from high school at 15, Adolphe started studying composition at Julliard at 16. He worked as a composer for the theater department while he was there and continued writing music for theater companies and for several documentary films after graduation.
His true passion, however, was to write music that would be the main focus, not in the background. He has since composed for chamber choirs, symphonies and operas.Adolphe said he still thinks of himself primarily as a composer, not a performer, which is evidenced by his work with piano puzzlers."What makes them popular is what they are," he said, "not how I play them."Adolphe has recorded more than 13 hours of piano puzzlers, which are each between one and three minutes long. His favorites are those where the piece and style fit together so naturally that the piece seems to write itself, he said. One of about every 15 or 20 is special to him, and he plans to play a few during his concert in Charleston.His inspiration for creating piano puzzlers was comedian and pianist Victor Borge. While Borge did play several variations on "Happy Birthday" that Adolphe admits were "pretty flimsy," it was Borge's humor at the keyboard and his method of incorporating education into a performance that stuck with Adolphe.He also credits Leonard Bernstein with contributing to his sense that he could have multiple roles in the music realm, such as being a conductor, composer and performer. It helped, Adolphe said, that he was the exact age of one of Bernstein's children, making Bernstein seem like a parent to his generation."There was a nice paternal invitation to join the world that he was in," he said.The Charleston Chamber Music Society and West Virginia Public Broadcasting are presenting the concert, sponsored by the Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation, Blackwell and Co., Laury's Restaurant, The Purple Onion and The Wine Shop.Tickets are available at Taylor Books and the Clay Center box office.Reach Alison Matas at or 304-348-5100.
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