I am fond of people from Kansas. I have been to Kansas and met them, and they have come to where I live. We have never argued. They are, without question, among the nicest people on earth – this after modest world travel as a reference. You can lose contact with your children in any downtown district – which would normally be a high-alert event filled with anxiety and law enforcement – and be reunited five hours later, secure in the knowledge that some citizen has been looking after them the whole time. Your children simply joined with another family, met their children, went shopping and to the museum, played games, had ice cream, and then suddenly were returned to you without notice or explanation. The other family is smiling, waving goodbye. No explanation is necessary. All is well.
I know. It makes no sense in a time of Amber Alerts. But it's true.
On September 18, Kevin Ayesh, of Kansas, and currently of the music faculty at Blue Ridge Community College, gave a solo piano recital dedicated to the memory of George W. Phillips. More about George in a minute. Ayesh, from Wichita, is a veteran of the recital circuit, having worked as a North Carolina Visiting Artist from 1988 to 1992; he has served as an orchestral soloist, competition adjudicator, and workshop clinician during his distinguished career in music. He is currently lead instructor of the BRCC Music Program, and he enjoys a fine reputation in his community.
His concert material was chosen in homage to Phillips, who recently passed away. George would have enjoyed this one. The program included Beethoven's Sonata in C minor, Op. 13 ("Pathétique"); Robert Starer's Five Caprices (1948); Franz Liszt's Grand Paganini Etude No. 2 in E flat, Frédéric Chopin's Barcarolle, Op. 60; Enrique Granados' Spanish Dance No. 4 ("Villanesca"); and two Debussy preludes – "La fille aux cheveux di lin" and "L'isle joyeuse."
The down side was Bo Thomas Auditorium, on the BRCC campus. For live music, it provides no help. In this non-musical, purpose-built, multi-media hall, decay is instant, and it makes a deadly silence in the most awkward places. Even with five acoustical shells on the stage, it's just no fun at all. A pianist of lesser stature would not have enjoyed much success.
Of particular note was a slightly slower tempo for the Beethoven. With just a tick or two taken off the conventional pace, we enjoyed some figures that often get lost amid the fury and passion of faster tempos. The spectacular Liszt is based on Paganini's Op. 1 Caprice No. 17, also in E flat major, for solo violin. It follows very closely the famous scale passages which are so familiar. The Starer pieces are wonderful, short virtuoso vignettes bordering on mid-20th-century "modern" harmonic vocabulary. They are not as much like Schönberg as in the manner of Frank Martin, of Geneva. Starer was a research subject during Ayesh's doctoral program.
Which bring us to George Phillips.... I don't know where George was from, but based on his manners it could easily have been Kansas. Here's an example: Ayesh was finishing his doctoral program while living in adjacent Hendersonville. One requirement was to record the entire Starer oeuvre on reel-to-reel tape. Phillips, a retired Foreign Service officer living in Flat Rock, had a habit of collecting dogs and pianists. He offered Ayesh the use of his living room, which contained his Hamburg Steinway, and a tape recorder. The only hitch in the deal was the dogs. As Ayesh would later say, "Some of those Starer works were over 10 minutes long, and if one of the dogs started barking right at the end it meant doing the entire piece over!"
Now that's pressure!
Phillips was known in this community for genteel musicales held in his Flat Rock home, usually in the evening or on Sunday afternoons. He would invite select musicians and sixty guests for two-hour musical fêtes that featured the best instrumentalists and singers of the area, some retired and others just visiting. He also made time for youngsters to earn some valuable experience. When the show was over, everyone enjoyed Louise Bailey's famous pound cake. There was chocolate sauce if you wanted, plus coffee. The guests – often the elite of the region – were always flattered to be in the intimate company of such vastly talented people. Of course his piano took center stage – that famous Hamburg Steinway.
He acquired this instrument while stationed in Germany and had it shipped back to the U.S. upon termination of that post, and it traveled around with him until he landed in this place in the mountains that he called "home," where so many musicians performed. The instrument is known for a certain depth of tone that is perfect for romantic and impressionistic music. Few things gave him as much pleasure as music and his dogs. In his younger years he trained as a tap dancer in the Buddy Ebsen School of Dance with Judy Canova. He even performed routines in New York. Later, he changed his mind and was attracted to work that offered travel to far-away lands.
He was a loyal member of the famous St. John in the Wilderness Episcopal Church in Flat Rock, and he was a man who took obvious pleasure in promoting young talent as well as providing a performance platform for all musicians. He was a major supporter of the arts through gifts to the Hendersonville Symphony, the George W. Phillips endowment fund for the study of fine arts at Blue Ridge Community College, and the Community Foundation effort that helps to meet the fee of guest artists with the Hendersonville Symphony Orchestra.
This piano program by Kevin Ayesh was exactly like an afternoon at George's house, and it was fitting and just to hear this music with Phillips in mind. I will always remember those musicales in his home, where Ayesh often played. I, too, was honored to play there several times. It was literally chamber music in the grandest sense.
Well done Kevin.
Well done George.