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Fellows of the American Pianists Association.

One is a raving Red Sox fan (but resident of New York) who prefers his coffee from a French press. Another is a sucker for every kind of wacko exercise gadget, most lately the "Gazelle," who goes vegan when he can (but has a weakness for chocolate chip cookies). The third likes to surf (real waves, not television channels) and likes Beckett as much as Beethoven. This is the diverse group also known as the Fellows of the American Pianists Association (APA): Adam Birnbaum, Michael Sheppard and Thomas Rosenkranz. MTNA National Conference attendees will have the chance to hear all three in concert April 3, and their musical fare will likely be as varied as their personal predilections.

"... anything but predictable ..."

On the surface, Sheppard (the vegan chocoholic) and Rosenkranz (the theatrical surfer) would seem to be linked by their titles as the current Classical Fellows of the APA, and both will, undoubtedly, offer piano music that, for want of a better word, is classical. Birnbaum (the New Yorker who rooted for Manny Ramirez) holds the Cole Porter Fellowship from APA, awarded in May 2004 at APA's sixth Triennial American Jazz Piano Competition, and he will play jazz.

But this concert will be anything but predictable. Consider that Birnbaum, the jazz pianist, is comfortable playing Ravel's Jeux d'eau, not a piece for hacks or beginners; that Thomas, one of the two classical pianists, often improvises in concerts; and that Michael, the other Classical Fellow, evokes Broadway with his performances of Porgy & Bess Fantasy or My Favorite Things. One thing's for sure--it won't be your typical piano concert.

Joel Harrison, APA's artistic director, is proud of that diversity. "I believe the paradigm of the classical piano recital is changing. Gone are the days of programming a Bach prelude & fugue, a Beethoven sonata, a Chopin ballade and then ending with the Prokofiev Toccata. We cannot continue to restrict our programming to the standard '200-plus years' of the piano canon."

Harrison, himself a concert pianist and former university piano teacher, is particularly proud of these three Fellows, precisely because they show such a wide range. "This is one of the ways," continues Harrison, "APA can be set apart from other organizations. There is no imposed repertoire for applicants." Rather, each pianist is asked only to play what he or she does best.

Thomas Rosenkranz

That freedom is what propelled Harrison to suggest to Thomas Rosenkranz, upon the latter's first full-length recital in Indianapolis, home to the APA, that he program Frederic Rzewski's massive The People United Will Never Be Defeated/, a tour-de-force whose very mention nowadays sends a cold chill down pianists' spines, just like the words "Hammerklavier" or "Petrouchka" did for an earlier generation of pianists. Rosenkranz has a knack for such massive knuckle-busters (to say nothing of what they do to your brain), having championed Messiaen's Vingt regards sur l'enfant Jesus, which he studied in Paris with the composer's widow, Yvonne Loriod, as well as works by John Adams, Martin Bresnick and George Crumb.

As if that weren't enough to distinguish Rosenkranz from the herd, he often includes improvisation in his public performances, taking a few notes, a theme or a well-known tune and then letting his imagination roam. He has done this recently with "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and "Georgia On My Mind," though his most distinctive performance to date was arguably his rendition of "Star-Spangled Banner" with native musicians in Tunisia, in which Rosenkranz incorporated Arabic scales. (Talk about cultural exchange....)

Rosenkranz was the 1999 national winner of the MTNA Collegiate Artist Piano Competition and has been guest artist at the Georgia, Pennsylvania, Hawaii and Washington state Music Teachers Association conventions. His performances have been broadcast worldwide as part of the WGBH Boston Program, Art of the States, and he has recorded for Nonesuch Records with the group Alarm Will Sound and for Warner Bros. Records with the Eastman Wind Ensemble.

Michael Sheppard

Michael Sheppard is equally unusual. While he focuses more on traditional repertoire than Rosenkranz, he is just as adept at contemporary or offbeat literature. His recent recitals include healthy doses of Chopin (Fantasy, Polonaise-Fantasy, mazurkas, Grand Polonaise in A-flat Major) and Mozart (sonatas), alongside works of the contemporary canon like Crumb's Makrokosmos and Corigliano's Etude-Fantasy. But Joel Harrison cites Sheppard's hypervirtuosity as a distinguishing trait.

"Michael is one of the real Titans of the keyboard," says Harrison. "He does things no human being should be able to do." Harrison might have had in mind Sheppard's rendition of "Flight of the Bumblebee," arranged by Gyorgy Cziffra, in a version that rivals Volodos for sheer daring and adrenalin. Sheppard also makes a convincing case for such crowd pleasers as Pavel Pabst's arrangement of themes from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, Leopold Godowsky's transcription of Strauss's Wein, Weib und Gesang and Stephen Hough's version of Richard Rodgers's "Carousel Waltz." Indeed, Sheppard sounds like a throwback to a bygone era of piano recitalists--one thinks of Liszt, Paderewski, Horowitz--whose exuberance and warmth wowed the crowds. Like those earlier virtuosi, Sheppard also is a composer in his own right, who often programs his original compositions. He trained at the Peabody Conservatory, where his teachers were Ann Schein and Leon Fleisher, and made his Kennedy Center debut in 2003. Sheppard also has been a Fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center and the La Gesse Foundation and was a prize winner in the National Federation of Music Clubs National Competition.

Adam Birnbaum

Jazz pianist Adam Birnbaum brings a high degree of finesse to his performances due, in part, to a rigorous classical piano background (having studied with John Adams and Patricia Zander). Birnbaum tackles Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and Ingolf Dahl's Quodlibet with equal conviction. But his musical homeland these days is most likely to be found in such jazz classics as John Coltrane's "Satellite," Wayne Shorter's "Black Nile" or Billy Strayhorn's "Passion Flower," works he performed on a recent set at the Jazz Kitchen, the premiere jazz club of Indiana.

As the APA Cole Porter Fellow (Porter himself was a Hoosier), Birnbaum also has swung such standards as "I Get a Kick Out of You" and "Just One of Those Things." Birnbaum displays a sense of humor in his own composition, a jazz waltz ironically titled "Kate the Great, the Bravest Dog Ever" (for his dog who whimpers at the sight of squirrels). Quirkiness aside, Birnbaum is firmly rooted in the jazz tradition whose players "know how to swing." In his arrangements of ballads like Porter's "I Concentrate on You," Birnbaum displays a classicist's restraint, always "keeping the integrity of the melody intact and being able to sing the lyrics of the song while playing it." Birnbaum has been a featured soloist at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival and was named "Outstanding College Rhythm Section Performer" at the 2000 Reno Jazz Festival. In October 2002, Jazziz magazine featured his song "Dealing." His piece "Welcome to Gotham," a commissioned composition for big band, was premiered by Jazz Band Classic at Carnegie Hall in 2003. He played for the internationally broadcast program An NPR Jazz Piano Christmas, taped live from the Terrace Theatre at the Kennedy Center in December 2004, sharing the program with jazz greats Kenny Barron and Lynn Arriale.

What is APA?

Just what is the American Pianists Association, sponsor of these three talented pianists? The association was born in New York City in 1979 as the Beethoven Foundation, conceived by the late Victor Borge, Tony Habig of Kimball International and Julius Bloom, former general manager of Carnegie Hall. Their original intent was to help identify and groom young American pianists to compete in international piano competitions by offering fellowships over a three-year period that included cash awards, concerts and media coverage.

In 1982, the Beethoven Foundation moved its national headquarters to Indianapolis, partly because of geographical ties by two of its founders, Habig and Borge. Now the executive offices are a part of the Arts Collaborative housed in Lilly Hall at Butler University. In 1989, the name was changed to American Pianists Association to reflect a broader scope that included jazz pianists, and the mission also has broadened beyond the original purpose This newly conceived APA has at its essence the intent to nurture young American artists, providing career assistance in a multitude of ways appropriate to each individual artist, through two-year fellowships valued at $70,000.

In its twenty-five-year existence, APA has helped the careers of dozens of stellar American pianists. For example, Lori Sims, 1993 APA Fellow, received the Gold Medal at the 1998 Gina Bachauer Competition and has concertized throughout the United States, Europe and China, and appeared with the Israel Philharmonic and NordDeutsche Rundfunks Orchestra. Another former APA Fellow is Christopher Taylor, who was bronze medalist in the 1993 Van Cliburn Competition, first-prize winner of the William Kapell Competition and the recipient of an Avery Fisher Career Grant. Frederic Chiu, a 1985 Fellow, enjoys an international career as a concert and recording artist. And there are many others having successful careers in academia and as performing artists throughout the country. There have been thirty-seven Fellows over the course of APA's twenty-five years.

Nowadays, APA promotes musical culture in Indiana and beyond. APA, through the generosity of The DeHaan Family Foundation, recently has initiated a series of endowments with orchestras nationwide, which will support the appearances of APA Fellows as soloists. The first of these concerts occurred in September 2004 with the Mississippi Symphony, when Michael Sheppard performed Saint-Saens's Piano Concerto No. 2.

Still another APA venture includes the sponsorship of the Indy Jazz Fest, a three-day summer festival featuring local, regional and international artists. The June 2004 festival drew 28,500 people to downtown Indianapolis to hear Ramsey Lewis, John Scofield and other jazz greats.

The APA Fellows also have assumed the roles of "cultural ambassadors" lately, completing a seven-week tour in the fall of 2003 to Southeast Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, sponsored by the U.S. State Department. Michael Sheppard and Tom Rosenkranz gave recitals, master classes and lectures, in addition to performing concerti and chamber music. Other international appearances have included festivals in the Czech Republic, France and Spain.


As of this writing (November 2004), the exact program for the Fellows' concert was still up in the air. When I asked Birnbaum what he would play on April 3, 2005, he deadpanned (with a shallow sigh, indicating merely mild exasperation), "I have no idea." Jazzers typically don't know what they're going to do five measures hence, let alone five months down the road. One could have suspected an equally elusive answer from Rosenkranz and Sheppard, who share Birnbaum's spontaneity and fertile musical life. Leopold Godowsky? Richard Rodgers? Frederic Chopin? Wayne Shorter? They all might appear on the same program. After all, anything's possible when you put a beachloving dramaphile, aerobically fit chocoholic and Red Sox fan from the Big Apple on stage together. And an artistic director who concocts programs, mixing repertoire, artists and genres with the same dash as a spirited bartender.

John Salmon, on the faculty of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, received a fellowship from the Beethoven Foundation in 1983.
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Title Annotation:2005 MTNA National Conference Artists
Author:Salmon, John
Publication:American Music Teacher
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2005
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