BWW Interviews: Keith Emerson of THE CLASSICAL LEGACY OF A ROCKSTAR
THE CLASSICAL LEGACY OF A ROCKSTAR: KEITH EMERSON'S 70TH BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION
Featuring Keith Emerson, Jeffrey Biegel and the South Shore Symphony
Madison Theater, Malloy College
October 10th and 11th, 8:00pm
On June 7th 1977, Emerson, Lake and Palmer performed the opening concert of a three-night stand at Madison Square Garden. The tour, in support of their new album "Works Volume One" was famous and infamous for the massive 76-piece symphony orchestra and choir that it featured. It was also the first concert of any kind that this writer attended. No concert in nearly forty years of concert-going has left the same kind of impression.
On October 10th and 11th, Keith Emerson returns to New York for two concerts at Malloy College with the South Shore Symphony, in a program entitled: "The Classical Legacy of a Rockstar," and it has all the earmarks of being another memorably epic evening.
The original keyboard wizard and virtual inventor of the progressive rock genre, Keith Emerson is one of the most important and influential musical figures in contemporary musical history. His groundbreaking style was an amalgam of rock, classical, jazz and his own personal style. In addition to his incomparable playing, he has penned some of rock music's most epic and memorable songs.
Keith spoke with BWW Classical recently from Sussex, England, where we took him away from his teaching piano lessons to his grandchildren. For a bona fide music legend, who has sold an estimated 40 million albums and performed before millions of fans in a long and varied career, Emerson is disarmingly modest and unassuming, with charm, wit, and a sardonic sense of humor in abundance.
Back to your classical roots?
"Actually, I think that is one of the things most people often mistake about me! I really didn't have this heavy classical, conservatory type training. For the most part I was really self-taught. I mean, I did have piano teachers early on, but in terms of my style of play, it's really fairly unschooled, or self-schooled."
(Emerson cites Dave Brubeck, Fats Waller and Oscar Peterson as some of his early influences. What's noticeably absent from this list are classical pianists.)
"I remember the very first classical concert I ever attended with my father. It was the Brandenburg Concerto #3. When we got home I went over to the piano and I just kind of played it from memory. Not correctly! Or with all the counterpoint, but pretty close. It came fairly naturally to me, and I really had a great ear. Most things that I heard, I could go to the piano and reproduce pretty accurately. And when I was old enough to play in a band, which was about fourteen, I was listening to a lot of music, of all kinds.
Keep in mind that most of the rock groups from that time, particularly American groups, really grew up on the blues. In the UK and I think in Europe as a whole our heritage stems more from classical music which is really a lot more complex than the blues. So you can say even though I didn't have any formal training per se, it was always around.
The Nice wound up doing a version of the Brandenburg and later we did the Sibelius Karelia Suite which was another piece that I had heard at a concert and subsequently learned by ear, and of course, as you know, we did America from West Side Story, which got us in all kinds of trouble!"
(The sheer quantity and diversity of classical music references in Emerson's body work, including Mussorgsky, Janacek, Bach, Copland, Shostakovich, Sibelius, Bartok, Bernstein, Dvorak, Rodrigo, Van Williams and Ginastera, suggest that the maestro is being a bit modest about his classical music knowledge and vocabulary.)
"I'll tell you something funny. A lot of my musical knowledge actually came from buying records! Because back in the day, if you recall, albums had proper liner notes and a great deal of work went into the creation of those liner notes. They provided a tremendous amount of information on the work and the recording. Sadly that has all gone away. You don't download liner notes on iTunes.
I remember the first time I heard Ginastera's Piano Concerto No. 1 was around 1969, and it completely blew me away. I knew Carl would love it because he was keen on doing music by people like Bartok. The problem was after we'd recorded the piece we realized we'd never got permission from the publisher to release it. So, we asked and the publisher said no! I learned that Ginastera was still alive and living in Geneva so I got his number and called him myself. The next day, I was on a plane to Geneva. I had a nice lunch with Alberto and his wife and then I played the tape for him. When it was over he had this strange look on his face. He looked like he was in pain! And he said something like, I can't remember the exact words but something like 'That is horrible!' I thought, oh God, he hates it! And I was ready to go home. But his wife said to us: "No, no, no, he says "diabolical" in a good way, like "unbelievable!" It turns out, he was actually overwhelmed by the recording. In the end, he loved it!"
Dudamel (the Ginastera saga continues...)
"A couple of seasons ago, I friend called and told me that the LA Philharmonic was going to be performing the GInastera Piano Concerto conducted by Maestro Dudamel at the Hollywood Bowl. Well, that was something I really wanted to hear. So, we went to the show and before they played the Concerto, Maestro Dudamel comes to the microphone and says: "This piece was made popular in the United States by Keith Emerson of Emerson Lake and Palmer!" Well my jaw nearly dropped off! I was like: "Hey! I'm right here!" So at the interval, we went backstage and met the great conductor and he was really great. He was so overjoyed to meet me, it was a humbling experience. It would be great to one day to get to work with him on something."
Jeffrey Biegel has said it's his dream to perform your concerto with Dudamel and the LA Phil.
"I really hope it happens! I think Dudamel is an amazing conductor and positive musical force. I'd be honored."
But not all of your meetings with your classical heroes turned out as well?
"Ah you mean the Leonard Bernstein affair. Well, we were mixing 'Works' Volume One" in Paris and a French promoter invited me to a concert of his. After the concert we went backstage and I told Bernstein that I had written a Piano Concerto and I'd love his thoughts on it. The Maestro suggested we should join him for dinner that night at some little bistro...
During the dinner he didn't even acknowledge our presence - he spent most of the evening just basking in the accolades from everybody there. But after dinner, the Maestro started to tap his wine glass with his fork. He stood up and said - dripping with sarcasm:
"My friends, we have an esteemed guest with us! Mr. Keith Emerson! And Mr. Emerson over here has written a Piano Concerto." The whole room goes: "Pooh!" Then Bernstein said: "Please tell us Mr. Emerson, how many movements does your Piano Concerto have?" I was a little confused. "Three," I said. Then the Maestro said, "Oooooh...Three Movements everybody!" and the whole room burst out laughing. I was in shock. "Was he mocking me?" "Pray, tell us what form these movements take," he continued. I almost didn't know what to say but I just sort of blurted out: "Well, the first is in Sonata. The Second is more Baroque in style and the Third is more atonal and progressive. But I told him, we're mixing it right now. Why don't you pop by and hear it for yourself. And I gave him the address to the studio."
I left the restaurant fairly certain that I'd never see him again. But to my shock, the next day, while Greg and I were in the control room, our manager runs in and says "there's a big limo outside. I think Bernstein is here!"
Greg was smoking a joint and had his feet up on the console. I told him to put out the joint and take his feet off the desk. He was clearly not planning to show even the slightest respect to the great man. So the doors open and in walks Bernstein in this long white cashmere coat and wearing a cape! Greg looks over at him and says: "Hey Lenny baby...how's it hanging?" Bernstein sat down and he was all business. He listened intently to the Concerto occasionally nodding his head. He said he heard the influences of various composers but on the whole he was fairly complimentary."
(EDITOR'S NOTE: on his recent tour, Greg Lake recalled Bernstein saying the work reminded him of "Grandma Moses" (the American Painter). Emerson does not recall the comment.)
For decades, Emerson consistently won Best Keyboardist in virtually all the Music Magazine Readers' Polls and he was recently honored at The Smithsonian Institution, along with Dr. Robert Moog, for his pioneering work in electronic music.
Of his early career he sounds equally modest and grateful.
"We were lucky in that we pretty much did what we wanted. In those day it wasn't so much about having hit singles or being on the radio. Even though we did manage to get a lot of radio play and have the occasional hit single. We all were listening to so much music and we brought it all into what we were doing."
"New York is and always has been a very special place to me and to ELP. It was the first place we played in America and we were always warmly welcomed. I remember driving in the limo from JFK, I think it was our first tour, and on the car radio was this gravelly-voiced dj playing all of "Pictures at an Exhibition" in its entirety! This was unheard of! If there was one person that helped ELP break into America it was Scott Muni of WNEW-FM, and when ELP played Carnegie Hall, May 26 1971, we had Scott introduce us."
(EDITOR'S NOTE: ELP ALSO HAD SCOTT MUNI INTRODUCE THEM AT THE WNEW 10TH ANNIVERSARY CONCERT AT MADISON SQUARE GARDEN IN 1977.)
"Greg, Carl and I would often pop by WNEW when we were in town and Scott would allow us to browse the huge record library, and let us play DJ for a while spinning whatever we wanted to play. That's one of the reasons why I am thrilled to finally bring the concerto to the New York audience."
You've said you are not really a conductor but weren't you the defacto musical director of ELP?
"Greg Lake was never really happy with that. He always thought everything I wrote was too classical in structure or too long and too structured or it was too similar to what I had done with The Nice. Carl was always much more open-minded about those things. And musically, as a drummer, Carl was always willing to face a challenge. But Greg and Carl didn't read music, so we'd often have to run through pieces quite a bit so they could memorize. It's funny, there is a video of us rehearsing "Karn Evil 9" on YouTube. I remember distinctly after we shot it, Carl and Greg were unhappy with it and didn't want it released, because it showed me be being kind of the school master teaching them their parts. But often out of necessity that was the case.
I like to think I am an expressive conductor! (he laughs heartily) When I conduct the South Shore Symphony, I hope the musicians have patience with me! I tend to get really into it when I'm on stage and often forget myself and get carried away with the music. I'm not the kind of conductor who's going to just stand there and wave the stick, giving just the down beat!"
The Piano Concerto
"It's been performed a number of times and actually Jeffrey did the American Premier of it a few years ago and I was very impressed. It's been done in Japan and Poland and a few other places, but Jeffrey really brings something special to the concerto. He plays it wonderfully and while he stays true to the spirit of the piece, he makes it very much his own. I'm still trying to get him to come up and some jazz improvisation with me, but we'll see! You know, when we recorded the concerto with the London Philharmonic in 1977, I had always hoped it might one day enter the standard repertory, because the universality of music is something that has always been important to me. Over the years, I've played everywhere around the world and the one thing I've learned is that only when the world forgets language and religion and politics and starts playing together, do we achieve true harmony."
"For Emerson's 70th birthday, we wanted to make a really big splash," said Biegel, who will be recording Emerson's piano concerto in the fall with the Brown University Orchestra. "There are literally thousands maybe tens of thousands of fans out there whose first exposure to classical music came through Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Many of them might never have even thought of listening to Mussorgsky or Copland or any number of other classical composers, let alone buying their CDs or attending classical concerts. In that respect, I really believe the classical music industry as a whole owes Keith a big debt of gratitude."
These concerts will feature many of the classical pieces that influenced Keith Emerson's musical development and his subsequent career - which has in turn influenced millions upon millions of music fans (classical or otherwise) for over four decades.
Speaking as one of those thousands of fans whose first exposure to the classics came from ELP, I could not agree with Jeffrey more. Emerson's influence has enriched the lives of so many in so many ways, it is nice to see that he is getting some of the recognition he so richly deserves.
Whether you are a serious fan of classical music, or just a casual fan, these concerts will be a delight for everybody. If you are a fan of Keith Emerson and ELP, run, don't walk, to get tickets! This is one you won't want to miss.
BWW CLASSICAL wants to thank Keith Emerson and Jeffrey Biegel for taking the time to speak with us, and we wish them tremendous success on the upcoming concerts.
THE CLASSICAL LEGACY OF A ROCKSTAR: Keith Emerson's 70th Birthday Celebration. Featuring Jeffrey Biegel and the South Shore Symphony.
Friday, Oct. 10, and Saturday, Oct. 11, 8 p.m., Tickets are $30, $45 and $55. Info: (516) 323-4444 or visit madisontheatreny.org.
Classical Music Editor