Recital Review Print



A Man with a Musical Mission: McCallum's the Name, and Piano's his Game

September 7, 2001 - Chapel Hill, NC:


For quite some time in this neck of the woods, Greg McCallum has been tickling those ivories - and those interspersed black keys, too. His first CD garnered from this writer high praise, and from time to time we have also had the pleasure of experiencing his art in concert settings. There is much about him that is both unusual and exciting. He is not allied with or based at any college or university, and since he is based in Orange County, this alone sets him apart. He has adopted an approach - several approaches, indeed - to music-making that break new ground in terms of outreach and inclusiveness, and his audiences reflect his cultural and social diversity, for those who flock to hear him - and his concert venues are almost always full--are not your typical recital program folks. McCallum's crowds contain YOUNG people along with biddies/geezers like us, and if they are sometimes restless, well, sometimes (in other settings), we are, too. (It may also be worth noting that his patrons are not all WASPs, either.)

This outstanding young artist clearly has a passion for music, and he takes his music where he thinks he will find people to listen. He's played in churches (sometimes for worthy social causes, and sometimes involving other, equally distinguished artists in the process), and he helped inaugurate the Carrboro Century Center. He's played some new stuff (his repertoire is wide-ranging), and he's gone out of his way to espouse the causes of several living (!) composers. He's also worked into some of the things he's done hymns and popular and folk melodies, including "Freight Train," by Carrboro's own Elizabeth Cotten.

His latest "take the music to the people" scheme is far and away his most ambitious undertaking to date. During the next four years, McCallum intends to take his Yamaha C7 grand piano (it's a bit stubbier than the standard concert variety) to all 100 counties of our state. The impetus for this involved the 300th anniversary of the development of the forerunner to today's piano, "invented" by ol' Bartolomeo Cristofori in Florence. Along the way he will do lectures, workshops and master classes, and his repertoire will embrace selections spanning the three centuries that composers have been writing for the black behemoth. The program is called "North Carolina Piano-To-Go: 88 Keys Across 100 Counties," and it's a production of his 501c3 (pending) Piano Connections. In a time when people are universally lamenting the decline of classical music, when the major CD companies are cutting "major" artists left and right, when folks are worried about "graying" audiences that are not being replenished by younger recruits, when our a&e papers and, yes, our NPR stations, too, are getting out of the classical business, McCallum's approach is like a breath of fresh air.

The county residencies will include three components - a public performance of important compositions for the piano, bolstered by informative commentary intended to entertain and enlighten his audiences; in-school performances in schools that will show the development of the piano and piano music in historical terms (and be reinforced by study guides provided to teachers); and a "community piano jam" in which residents of all ages will come together to celebrate the instrument using whatever music they see fit to play. Master classes for teachers and students will also be available. For more information or to contribute to his project, contact PC by email (pianoconnections@msn.com) or call 919/928-8338 in Carrboro--yes, beautiful, scenic Carrboro is the locus of this enterprise!

To launch his statewide travels, McCallum enlisted a flock of "pi-ana players" and put on a big "Bach to Boogie" piano show in the attractive, acoustically appealing c.500-seat auditorium of East Chapel Hill High School on the evening of September 7. The place was packed, and we were late, in part because of (1) I-40 on a Friday night (and maybe some poor planning on our part, since we know about that) and (2) a concurrent football game at the same location but mostly because, although we've lived here for nearly 50 years and went to school in Chapel Hill, we didn't know there were TWO high schools in that village, so we went to the wrong one at first. As a result, we missed his opening salvo of Bach and the contributions of two little people, Lilly Yuan and Grace Lee. (We know they are little because they joined the rest of the crew for bows at the end of the show.) McCallum played some bits and pieces, some of which we've heard him do before--a movement of Beethoven's "PathÈtique" Sonata, a Chopin nocturne, a Rachmaninov prelude, Debussy's "Reflets dans l'eau," and Gershwin's Three Preludes (recorded by the composer soon after they were completed in 1927 and available in a wonderful two-CD set from Pearl). McCallum was in good form as he played these familiar works; his performances were invariably compelling and, for what it's worth, all were rapturously received. Sandwiched in between these things were a bevy of guests, ranging from Pablo Vega, who played one of his own works ("A Walk in the Shadows"), to Andrew Kuty (whose reading of a slow Rachmaninov prelude set the stage for the "star's" own dazzling rendition of another, more lively one), to Kent Brooks (a composer and pianist whose two selections skillfully merged, as he said, "classical, gospel and jazz"), to our old UNC classmate (or near-classmate) Robert Griffin. The latter's contributions were jazz treatments of "Carolina on my Mind" and "Autumn Leaves," and these left no doubt in their hearers' (Carolina) minds that things are hoppin' in Tarheelia. The Grand Finale was indeed quite grand, for it involved not McCallum but a crew called The FourMost (Barbara Clyde, Betsy Mann, Dot Lineberger and Don Hartman). This bunch plays "music arranged for eight hands on two pianos" and their offerings were "Getting to Know You" and a Scott Joplin "rag rhapsody." They've been together for 18 years, and we regret never before having heard 'em, but the reason for that must relate to their customary beat, which according to the program encompasses places like the Europa, Chapel Hill Senior Center, Carol Woods, Carolina Meadows, and gigs for the Chapel Hill Music Teachers Association. Maybe we'd better let it go at that, but it's probably worth mentioning that they upped the average age of the evening's participants considerably and seemed to have more fun than anyone else on the program. It was, all told, a great night of music, for the most part very handsomely realized. We hope McCallum will keep us posted on his travels so we can, in turn, keep our readers informed of his experiences, which in a very real sense may wind up being similar to the treks Ben and Maxine Swalin used to undertake here with the then-fledgling NC Symphony. Bon voyage!

P.S. See our calendar entry for September 16 for news about a CD release party celebrating McCallum's second CD, "Reflections." Also check out the artist's Windy City debut via web radio on December 12 at 11:15 a.m. local time, when he'll play during the Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concert. RealAudio will get you in touch, and the URL is http://www.wfmt.com [inactive 9/05].