The Sheppard And The Sonata

Bill Mossman
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November 02, 2011
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Pianist, composer Michael Sheppard has more than music on his mind these days as he prepares for his second solo recital inside UH’s Orvis Auditorium

Much like his dark curls of hair, melodies are constantly bouncing around the head of noted classical pianist and composer Michael Sheppard. It’s been that way ever since his locks were considerably shorter and he was no taller than a piano stool while growing up in Philadelphia.

“Whether it’s mine or someone else’s, music is always going on in my mind,” admits Sheppard, a prodigious talent who started hammering out melodies on the piano at, believe it or not, age 2.

But lately, this one-time recipient of the American Pianists Association Classical Fellowship Award and current accompanist for the graduate conducting program at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore,has been hearing something other than just musical compositions.

These days, it’s been more about the crashing of waves than the crashing of cymbals, more about the tickling of sand under his toes than tickling the ivories.

Yes, Sheppard has got beaches on the brain a place where the best sonatas, arranged with ample amounts of surf and sunshine, are apparently still played.

“I’d use just about any excuse to get back to Hawaii and get some time on a beach maybe even try my hand at surfing again,” he confesses to Musical Notes. “You know, living in Baltimore is nothing like a beach.”

Well, Mr. Sheppard, consider your excuse granted. Thanks to the Hawaii Music Teachers Association (HMTA), this “rising star of his generation of artists,” as he is often billed, and occasional guest artist with orchestras around the country is not only about to get his coveted beach time he’s also about to receive standing ovations from Hawaii’s adoring classical music fans.

His upcoming solo recital, scheduled Nov. 11 at 7:30 p.m. inside Orvis Auditorium at UHManoa, will mark his second-ever performance in the Islands.

Brian McKnight

He was here six years ago at the behest of close friend and former University of Hawaii faculty member Thomas Rosenkranz, and wound up entertaining audiences at the HMTA annual convention. This time, he’s coming armed with many of Franz Liszt’s favorite melodies, hoping to honor the bicentennial birth of the famous Hungarian composer, pianist and conductor with a repertoire featuring Valse-Impromptu, Polonaise No. 2 in E Major, Ballade No. 2 in B minor and Sonetto del Patrarca No. 104.

But aside from paying homage to one of classical music’s historical greats, Sheppard, who cut his teeth under such genre luminaries as Leon Fleisher and Ann Schein, also hopes to thrill audiences with a bit of contemporary magic. A longtime fan of composer John Williams, Sheppard plans to whisk audiences away with his own transcription of Williams’ film scores to the Harry Potter movies.

“The Harry Potter themes are something I started writing a while ago and they sort of sat there for a couple of years until recently, when I finally finished it,” says Sheppard, adding his piece is based on the film’s leitmotif Hedwig’s Theme and “runs about 11 minutes or so.”

Musical Notes caught up with the touring pianist and got him to elaborate more on a career that continues to build like a steady crescendo.

MN: When did classical music become a focal point in your life?

MS: I first discovered it when I was about 9. I heard Brahm’s D-minor Piano Concerto No. 1 one day and I had this visceral reaction to it. I was floored! Before then, I was always listening to pop stuff. But once I heard classical music, I pretty much dropped pop music altogether not of any kind of avoidance or dislike. It just simply fell off my radar. But with classical music, there was always a deeper well of meaning to it.

Benny Chong

MN: In today’s specialized world, classical composers tend to create while performers interpret. You, however, do it all. Do you take pride in seeing a composition through from beginning to end from its writing and arranging stages to actually performing the finished product on stage?

MS: Well, I do tend to align myself with people who compose and perform. So, yes, I suppose I do enjoy doing it all. This separation between the composer and performer, I believe, actually started with Liszt, as he was the first to present recitals of just himself. Before him, you’d have a mixed bag a singer, an orchestra playing, a pianist, a trio basically, a variety show. Since then, there’s been more of a schism between composers and performers.

MN: What’s the latest with the chamber group you cofounded, Monument Piano Trio?

MS: The trio is actually being put on hold for awhile because our violinist recently took a job with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. So what’s happening is that I’m starting another chamber group that has two pianists and two percussionists. We’re called Hammer-Klavier, just like Piano Sonata No. 29 from Beethoven.

It’s basically the (Bela) Bartok ensemble Bartok, of course, is the one who wrote the foundation piece for an ensemble called Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion and we’ll be doing mainly contemporary music. And while this project is not a replacement of Monument Piano Trio, I am freshly excited about it.


R&B singer-songwriter Brian McKnight drops in at Blaisdell Concert Hall for a performance at 7:30 p.m. Thursday before hopping over to the Valley Isle the following evening for a concert at Maui Arts & Cultural Center. McKnight, who released his latest album Just Me this past summer, is best known for hits such as Love Is and One Last Cry ... Mahalo to Rodney Inefuku, who sent our offices video links of jazz ukulele virtuoso Benny Chong and standup bassist Byron Yasui, otherwise known as B2, lending their unique talents to beloved standards The Very Thought of You and The Nearness of You. Chong the former guitarist of The Alii’s, Don Ho‘s one-time backup band really cuts loose in the concert footage, showing off his dexterity on the uke with an impressive array of chord voicings. If you don’t believe me, check the tunes out for yourself at VKuipo?feature=mhee and user/VKuipo?feature=mhee#p/f/2/8tNYRBwBK0w. And keep sending me links of your fave local and live performances. If I like ‘em, I’ll give ‘em a small-kine shout out.

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