Just about every pianist I’ve queried over the course of 20 years of nosy intrusions into the realm of creativity has cited Polish-French composer Frederic Chopin as an influence.
I have to admit that I prefer the pomp of Baroque or the minimalism of Contemporary to the sappiness of the Romantics, especially on the piano. But I enjoy it all nonetheless.
Chopin so inspired Armstrong State University piano teacher Benjamin Warsaw that the latter produced an entire album of short, original pieces based on the former’s preludes.
Only Chopin isn’t the only imprint on him. The solo piano disc “Warsaw Plays Warsaw” cuts through classical music like the Colorado River exposes layers of geologic time.
“Anything that’s influenced me at any point is fair game,” Warsaw says of his take on the composer’s immortal Op. 28, his cycle of 24 preludes set in each major and minor key.
“I wanted to find a different expression for every key,” he says. “I’m sure that if I wrote 24 preludes in 10 years, it would be totally different than what I came up with.”
Hints of Brahms, Stravinsky, Ives, Debussy, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff and Gershwin all appear in Warsaw’s novel compositions as he hits all moods from A Major to G Minor.
(And I’m much indebted to my former co-worker, Beth Ford, who gave our area joy for 31 years as the main music programmer for 91.1 FM, for helping me identify Warsaw’s many influences. I’m good at Piano Puzzler. But I’m not that good!)
Warsaw got the idea to compose 24 preludes, a la Chopin, six years ago while he was studying for his piano doctorate and playing the work of the great virtuosi of the past.
“I got sick of playing dead people music,” he says, laughing, since he still plays the old masters. “I wanted to find a new way to express myself. So I started challenging myself.”
First he came up with three, then six preludes. At that point, he was a third there. So why not finish? For a few, he drew from a well of Jewish songs that he learned as a child.
“They have made their way into my writing and into my subconscious,” he says. Now he has to ask, “Did I write that or is that a Hebrew song that I’ve been just influenced by?”
His most original prelude is his Fantasy in G Minor, a tempest of sonic creativity that swells from calm to unsettled in the span of about five minutes, the CD’s longest track.
“That was one of the ones that just kind of came out and then I wake up and say ‘Woah, what just happened?’” he says. “But it comes from a very improvisatory place.”
Warsaw has been “improvising” since he was six. Elders told him to stop “banging” on the keyboard, an insult hurled at only the most innovative pianists, I assure you.
He grew up in Savannah, taught in Atlanta for many years and again became an asset to our community in 2013. He started Armstrong’s marvelous “Piano in the Arts” series.
“I’m part of helping it to grow,” he says of Savannah’s classical music scene, a definite niche. “It’s a much smaller group than those who play jazz and other types of music.”
I first saw him last year at Skidaway Island’s Messiah Lutheran Church, which presents an excellent summer concert series. His far-flung concerts make their way into his work.
“It’s a journey. For all musicians and artists, we’re constantly redefining ourselves,” he says. “Every performance, every piece of music, is a redefinition of what we are.”
The next “Piano in the Arts” concert will feature Van Cliburn International Competition winner Vladimir Viardo on Saturday, April 23, 2016 at 7:30 p.m. at the Armstrong Fine Arts Auditorium.