Guest piano recital combines drama, art, music


Elaine Harriss, professor of music at the University of Tennessee at Martin,  greeted her audience with an explanation of her inspiration for the Monday evening recital.

“I was perusing Amazon when I came across a CD that was made up of music for children’s books,” Harriss said. “I did not care for the first three tracks, yet the fourth track, ‘L’Histoire de Babar,’ caught my ear. The song came from a French composer who had a home on the French countryside that he would go to rest. He took his three nieces with him on one occasion, and his youngest niece heard him playing. Being an unapologetic, young child, she told her uncle that she didn’t like the music he played. She handed him a book and told him to play the book instead. He humored her and played the piano to match the tone of the book while she read it aloud to him.”

The piece was originally composed for a narrator and a pianist. Harriss thought it would be more entertaining with a slideshow so she asked an art professor to put together slides from the book to show during the performance. Harriss said it was great to see the kids leaning forward to listen and watch the combination of drama, art and music.

The projector came to life, the narrator stood at the ready and Harriss began to play. The story was about Babar the baby elephant and his journey to adulthood. The slide was a picture frozen in time yet the audience could hear it coming alive from the piano keys. Many students were present for extra credit, yet their looks of resigned disdain transformed into chuckles at Babar dancing in a speedo. They transformed into gasps as the hunter shot Babar’s mother. They released sighs as they watched Babar get married as the story concluded. The audience appeared captivated as if they were present at the wedding alongside the cartoon animal guests.

“As music students, it is really nice when we get something out of the norm from all the recitals we go to,” Ansley Katz, junior music education major said. “This different take on recitals was refreshing.”

The pianos glided across the performance floor and fit together like folded hands. The composers took their seats at each piano opposite of each other for the second act of the night, passing the baton of playing back and fourth. At certain parts they seemed to be fighting over the music like a tug-of-war battle. At other points they seemed to be waltz partners. Like soldiers standing ready at the cannons, the sheet turners stood at intervals ready to turn the sheet music so the constant fusion of dance and struggle could continue uninterrupted. While one composer would play a soft, soothing melody, the other would come across with a sharp, striking melody.

“Tonight was really different than normal piano recitals I’ve been too,” said Emily Savage, junior music and psychology double major. “I’ve never seen a narrator combined with a recital, and the two pianists bounced off one another really well.”