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A Stone's throw: Eighty-eight times eight


Betty Stone



It is a shame that I cannot write about something that I have done before I do it, so that if it is good, I can recommend it to readers. I do not get to go to sneak previews very often, however; I just have to write after the fact. One example is a performance I saw recently, a concert of eight pianos. Peggy Cantelou and I went to Jackson to hear them as a benefit for the Mississippi Symphony, presented by the Jackson Symphony League. It was hosted and narrated by mezzo-soprano Lester Senter Wilson, a friend who had urged me to attend. The least I can do is to say that, if you ever have an opportunity to hear such a concert, take it! 


We were nearly late arriving and had to slip in a side door of the huge First Baptist Church of Jackson, almost getting lost in its expanse of halls and elevators. We would probably never have made it without the guidance of an especially nice young security guard who, praises be, not only guided us from our parking spot on the outskirts of nowhere, but appeared at our exit from the auditorium to escort us back to the parking lot when the concert was over. If you ever doubt "the kindness of strangers," this young man would dispel it. 


The flip side of having to sneak in a side entrance was that we got to sit on the third row to the right, where we could see the hands of at least some of the pianists. (We could almost read, and did see, where they had highlighted their parts of the music. It had been professionally arranged for that number of pianists.) Great seats! If we had sat in the center section, we would have seen nothing but the backs of eight grand pianos arranged in a big semi-circle. 


But, of course, it was the sound, not the sight, that was the attraction. It was well worth the drive to Jackson. Unlike many performances, this concert was comprised completely of music nearly anyone would recognize. One did not have to wait until the conclusion to hear familiar melodies. 


Millsaps College professor Tim Coker conducted. Pianists were from several educational and religious institutions in Jackson. They played a lively program that included easily recognized works such as Saint-Saens' "Danse Macabre" and "Carnival des Animaux" with verses by Ogden Nash, Rossini's "William Tell Overture" and Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever." For the familiar Lone Ranger music, Coker donned a cowboy hat and black mask. 


The artists were so skillful that I could have sworn I heard actual brass instruments, and the picolo solo in Sousa's march sounded for all the world like the real thing. Twenty-two other pianists joined the eight for the Sousa finale; one of them was former Columbus resident Ken Roberts. The entire performance was impressive. The auditorium was full, except for the balcony. I wished I could have magically transported the music lovers of Columbus to those seats. 


Mass piano concerts have a long history in Jackson, going back to the 1950s at least. There were two in the 1990s. The future may not be so promising. One commentator observed that there is not as much music emphasis in the schools any more. Not as many youngsters are learning to play the piano. In bygone years many more students had an opportunity to learn how to play. It is devoutly to be hoped that we will still develop a new generation of musicians capable of giving this much pleasure. And, I might venture to add, experiencing the pleasure of performing programs like this one.


Betty Boyls Stone is a freelance writer, who grew up in Columbus.


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