Christopher Taylor, the piano soloist next weekend with the Wichita Symphony Orchestra, doesn't have direct connections to Wichita — he never lived here; he didn't study here.
But Taylor has close ties to Wichita's classical music scene. When he's not concertizing, Taylor teaches at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, so he knows conductor Andrew Sewell, who lives in Madison and is in his last year as music director of the Wichita Symphony.
Also, Taylor studied with Wichita State University pianist Julie Bees when he was a child and both lived in Boulder, Colo. The Bees connection is especially pertinent, because she had a strong influence on the kind of musician Taylor is today.
Taylor will play Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23 with the Wichita Symphony and conductor Daniel Hege — the orchestra's next music director. The concerts next weekend also feature Debussy's "Nocturnes" and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4.
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Taylor, a scintillating performer who is perhaps best known for his championing of modern and contemporary piano music, has played solo recitals in Wichita a few times. This will be his first concerto engagement here.
Taylor has fond memories of his lessons with Bees, which he began when he was about 8 years old.
"I was extremely eager to play Beethoven's music; everything was about Beethoven for me at that stage," Taylor recalled. "So when I came to her for the first lesson, I was longing to learn some Beethoven sonatas. And she prudently held me off for a little while. I think it was about a year later she finally broke down and let me do the Op. 10, No 1. (Sonata No. 5)
"Certainly she fostered my musical curiosity. She did wonders for my technique; I didn't have any strength or technical discipline when I started with her and she whipped me into shape. Probably 80 percent of the technique I know today she got started."
Taylor wasn't sure if he wanted to pursue music full time. He earned a mathematics degree from Harvard. But earning first place in the William Kapell International Piano Competition and in 1993 the bronze medal at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition helped determine his direction — he's since played in the world's most prestigious concert halls.
He's known for his cerebral performances of new music, including difficult pieces by Messiaen and Boulez. But Mozart and the other classical masters are never far from his thoughts, and he sees little difference between playing Mozart's luscious 27-minute Piano Concerto No. 23 and the dense two hours of Messiaen's "Twenty Contemplations of the Infant Jesus."
"Music is music; it's all part of a single tradition," Taylor said. "The things you learn about creating beautiful sounds in Mozart or Chopin are going to be relevant. Even if you're playing something uncompromisingly hard-core — Milton Babbitt or Boulez — knowing how to communicate with an audience musically is a skill that has constant elements regardless of the year the piece was written."
In his Wichita Symphony debut Taylor will play one of the most popular piano concertos Mozart wrote.
"It comes from Mozart's miraculous year of piano concertos, when half a dozen of the greatest examples of the form came flowing out of his pen," Taylor said. "It's always humbling to take part in that.
"The piece is very mellow and refined," Taylor said. "In its understated way it is a very profound statement."
If you go
wichita symphony orchestra
What: Classics concert featuring music by Debussy, Mozart and Tchaikovsky, Christopher Taylor, piano; Daniel Hege, conductor
Where: Century II Concert Hall, 225 W. Douglas
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, 3 p. m. Nov. 15
How much: Tickets are $20-$42, discounts available. For more information, visit www.wso.org or call 316-267-7658.