Lunch-hour pedestrians in midtown Manhattan from June 4th to 8th may have stumbled across one of five consecutive mid-day recitals (part of Bryant Park’s Piano in the Park series) by Roy Eaton, an African-American musician born in Harlem in 1930, gifted with unusual poise and calm grace. Mr. Eaton, who has released CD’s of Chopin on Summit Records and Scott Joplin’s ragtime music on Sony, has a new Summit CD out, Keyboard Classics for Children, which reveals unusual insight into the world of childhood. The disc includes works by J.S. Bach and Claude Debussy, as well as Robert Schumann’s Kinderszenen, played in deliberate (yet never heavy) tempos and with unshowy intimacy, in the spirit of the acclaimed British pianist Clifford Curzon (1907-1982).
Eaton was born, sadly, before it was possible for an African-American classical pianist seriously to envisage a concert career. Instead, he became an advertising executive for Young & Rubicam and Benton & Bowles. (Eaton is responsible for several popular TV jingles, including You can trust your car/ to the man that wears the star/ the big, bright, Texaco star and Beefaroni’s full of meat/ Beefaroni’s really neat./ Hooray for Beefaroni!). After being downsized in 1980, Eaton (who now teaches at the Manhattan School of Music) found time to rediscover his inner child and his musical ambitions.
An equally moving expression of childhood in classical music can be heard in the merry, radiant works of Conrad Tao, a composer, pianist, and violinist born in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois in 1994. Tao, a student at Juilliard’s preparatory program, has produced a CD of his pieces, Silhouettes & Shadows, expressing a balletic musical grace. His Sonata for Cello and Piano ranges in mood from the impish to the searching. Another disc available on Tao’s website, a 2006 solo piano recital at Juilliard, includes tenderly exalted performances of works by Beethoven, Chopin, and Liszt.
Tao has a sense of musical line—a conviction that each note is part of the total fabric of a given work—found only in the greatest musicians, like the conductor Arturo Toscanini and the tenor Peter Pears. This quality, plus the congenial sense of community endeavor that marks everything Tao does, augurs very well indeed for his future as a musician. He has nothing in common with the usual image of the child prodigy, an isolated misfit in a media fishbowl.
Whether an aging musician re-awakens a talent long ignored, or a child possessing unusual gifts writes music with adult acumen, it’s clear that music can provide an exception to the otherwise cruelly rigid laws of Father Time.