If it weren't in a recital hall, equipped with a small stage and several large pianos, including one of those "wicked villager" things (a Bösendorfer Imperial grand), the new series of performances being presented at Ruggero Piano could be called "salon concerts." For my old drinkin' buddies, that's "salon" and not "saloon" (Rotel, are you out there?). Indeed there's not often booze at these events..., but I'll 'fess that I've tossed back a few (in days gone by) while listening to records of some of the works heard in B'dorfer Hall on the evening of August 22.... Serious critics, covering serious classical events, often overlook concerts involving local artists - students, amateur adults, and the like. And we can think of several colleagues who'd rather die (almost) than have to cover such things - one example is Morris L. Wilson, who wrote for Spectator in days gone by and who preferred only the most refined offerings. That we may be missing some fine and - yes! - entertaining music was evident when host & MC Eric Hale, an amateur vocalist, got things off to a rousing start with "Extraordinary," from Pippin, accompanied by Sue Timmons. She played the Imperial, and it's a stunning instrument, but that's not the key (as we learned last year, when a parade of Steinways at Meredith didn't all "perform" as well as their original owners might had caused them to do...) - she's an outstanding accompanist, and she gave Hale lots of support.
The first scheduled artist was indisposed - perhaps she'll appear at a subsequent event - but the rest of the show (we use the term advisedly) proceeded exactly as advertised. First up was Salam Murtata, an engineer with DENR (the state's Department of Environment & Natural Resources) who studies with John Ruggero, brother of the piano store's owner. Murtata brought high levels of musicianship to a performance of Haydn's Sonata in C, H.XVI:48 and to Liszt's 13th Hungarian Rhapsody. His tempi in the Haydn were often brisk, and here and there the notes didn't quite fall into place, but his concept of the piece was sound and he was warmly received. The Liszt was truly special - he clearly loves the piece and his passion for it was handsomely conveyed. Afterwards, he noted that the piano takes some getting used to, and that's true. It's said to be one of only 50 in the whole country, but they're very special, indeed - and with those extra notes on the low end (for which few composers have written...), they speak with atypical richness.
The rest of the show was devoted to "The Singer without Shame and the Accompanist without Fame." Robert (Bob) Anderson is best known, hereabouts, as one of the most colorful members of the NC Symphony's bass section. He categorized himself in the program as "voice(?)" and that's fair - this bassist is a quasi-baritone with a tolerable upper register, and in the literature he essayed, he was splendid. That literature consisted of a selection of songs from 1897 to 1937, a slice of the material he often performs with his partner, pianist Janice McLaughlin, who by day is one of the NCS' librarians (but who turns up locally fairly often, generally accompanying students). Their part of the program was cabaret at its best, with dance steps, props, and general carrying-on. The music included "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails" (with an unplanned excursion into the first row of seats), "Dinah," "Break the News to Mother" (a tear-jerker if ever there was one), "Why Am I Alone?," "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime" (the theme song of many arts groups, including, perhaps, the NCS), "Till the Sands of the Desert Grow Cold," and "Slap that Bass" (in which the reference is to Anderson's customary instrument and not to Anderson himself...). Along the way, McLaughlin delivered the goods as accompanist and starred in her own right in three great solo numbers - Fats Waller's "Keepin' Out of Mischief" and his arrangement of "Dinah," and Joplin's classic rag, "The Easy Winners." The use of the adjective "classic" fits the whole segment, when you think about it; like the folks who do USO-type shows featuring music from the WWII era (and before), the Shameless-Fameless Duo have resurrected music rarely heard nowadays, and it's good to revisit this stuff from time to time - although we gather that their customary venues are retirement communities.
In the interest of full disclosure, these freebie concerts do come at a price. Ruggero is, after all, in the piano business, and instruments he sells are featured. As it happens, the MC and Anderson, too, touted the "product" - and the Shameless One also plugged CVNC (! - see how much good it did him!) and his physical therapist, too (which perhaps explains why he sang instead of playing - and why he's been sitting out downtown for a while). And if this weren't enough, the post-concert coffee was from Starbucks, so they got a credit line, too. Whew! But it was free!
It's clear that Anderson and McLaughlin won't go hungry, even if still harder times grip the arts here in the so-called State of the Arts. This was an eye-opener, in some respects an ear-opener, too, that shed new light on some familiar faces. If the Fourth Friday Mix series - billed as a showcase for local talent* - continues to percolate like this particular evening, Ruggero & Co. should have a long, long run. The next one's September 26. If the creeks don't rise, we'll be there!
*Readers interested in performing should contact Ruggero Piano at 919/839-2040.