Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2007

Lost and found: Pianist recovers his muse

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Marilyn Banner
Piano forte: Carl Banner of Bethesda has rediscovered his passion for solo repertoire.
Carl Banner has been able to realize his dream and reconnect with his first love. As is often the case with such grandiose accomplishments, the Bethesda pianist’s route to playing ‘‘the finest chamber music in Washington” as well as resuming solo performances has been somewhat circuitous.

The 59-year-old D.C. native’s affinity for music was established early. At age 6, Banner took a ‘‘pre-instrumental music class, consisting mostly of plastic recorder instruction,” and at 7, began piano lessons with his aunt, ‘‘a well-known D.C. piano teacher, chamber musician and dance accompanist.” Her husband was a violist, and the couple held weekly chamber music performances in their D.C. home, that Banner ‘‘often listened to, sometimes from under the piano.”

‘‘All of my relatives loved classical music, and several of them had played professionally,” he says.

It’s no coincidence then that his brother also became a musician; Daniel Banner is a violinist with the San Francisco Symphony.

When the family relocated to St. Louis, Banner continued his lessons, and also began competing. Five years later, he performed the Schumann Piano Concerto with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. This achievement was, he reflects, ‘‘a significant milestone for me in many ways.” At his teacher’s insistence, Banner committed to career in music, and stayed in St. Louis to study for a year after his parents returned to D.C. He joined his family the next year, but traveled by train twice a month to St. Louis for lessons.

Banner proceeded to win the National Society of Arts and Letters Competition; his prize was a scholarship to study with Leonard Shure in New York, which he claimed upon graduating from Woodrow Wilson High School at age 16.

And this, says Banner, ‘‘is where my history becomes complex, or interesting, depending on how you look at it.” In terms of education, he was all over the map: a year at Yale, then Washington University in St. Louis, the Music Academy of the West in California and the State University of New York at Buffalo. Having

qualified as a conscientious objector, he returned to D.C. in 1970 for alternate service as an orthopedic technician at Suburban Hospital.

‘‘Around this time,” Banner says, ‘‘I decided to give up music and get a real job of some sort.”

As such, he proceeded to attend another series of schools, beginning with Montgomery College, followed by a bachelor’s degree in zoology at the University of Maryland and a doctorate in cell biology at Harvard. Thus academically equipped, he secured work, first at with a small biotech company in Gaithersburg, later as a researcher, then a grants administrator at NIH.

But Banner never completely abandoned music, and gradually he realized ‘‘I would have to make it once again central in my life.” During graduate school, he bought a small piano and along with another student, a violinist, ‘‘played a weekly brunch gig in a Cambridge restaurant and a few concerts here and there.”

Back in D.C. by 1988, Banner ‘‘assembled groups of very good amateurs,” among them the NIH Chamber Players and the Rock Creek Chamber Players, with whom he performed. Three years later, having become ‘‘impatient with the amateurs,” he formed the Millennium Ensemble and the Cezanne Trio, and initiated a regular concert series at several area venues.

Banner and his wife Marilyn, an artist, formed the nonprofit Washington Musica Viva in 1998 ‘‘to bring the kind and quality of chamber music that I dreamed of to the public.” They rented a warehouse in Kensington to serve as her studio and his concert hall, and for three years, it was the site of monthly chamber music performances. When the music became too ‘‘disruptive to the operation of the art studio,” Banner and his ‘‘world-class musician colleagues” opted to perform elsewhere — including The Dennis & Phillip Ratner Museum in Bethesda, where Banner will perform his long-neglected solo repertoire — his ‘‘first love” — next Wednesday evening.

Within the past few years, Banner notes, ‘‘I became aware that, although I dearly love the variety of sound quality and the interactive nature of small ensemble music ... It had been years since I performed a solo program on a grand piano.”

Banner feels he is ‘‘bringing some new life to the form” of the piano recital. He credits his approach ‘‘more to my chamber music experience and exposure to non-classical music than to my pedagogical training.” He has departed from ‘‘the assumptions, traditions and expectations” of solo piano repertoire ‘‘in ways that none of my teachers would have countenanced.”

‘‘I talk informally with the audience between pieces,”Banner explains. ‘‘My involvement with the music is usually pretty obvious; no one would characterize my approach as stiff or detached. I have been known to play passages standing up and even to shout along with the climactic passages.

‘‘Yet the very things that a piano teacher might regard as unconventional, or even scandalous, seem to be perfectly OK with audiences.”

Last year, Banner offered his first program ‘‘My Favorite Things,” consisting, he says, ‘‘mostly of solo works I have known since childhood, but have rethought in maturity.”

His second, next Wednesday’s ‘‘The Poetry of the Piano,” features classical pieces by Brahms, Stravinsky and Bach; rags by Scott Joplin and William Bolcom; and New York composer Charley Gerard’s new work ‘‘that bridges the gap between jazz and contemporary classical music.”

At the program’s first presentation in October at Galilee Lutheran Church in Pasadena, Md., Galilee music director Joel Borelli-Boudreau came up with the title, and Banner thinks it’s fitting.

‘‘Music has a shamanic and poetic role ...,” he explains. ‘‘I like music from the heart, music with passion, music that comes from deep within.”

‘‘Perhaps I love the piano because it is the romantic instrument par excellence, and I am a 19th century romantic at heart,” he muses. ‘‘I am more interested in depth than brilliance, in emotion than impression, in truth than illusion ... I encourage the audience to close their eyes and relax into their own emotional space.”

Seems like a lovely way to spend an evening far from the madding crowds of the holiday season.

Carl Banner will present ‘‘The Poetry of the Piano” at 7:30 p.m. next Wednesday, Dec. 12, in The Dennis & Phillip Ratner Museum, 10001 Old Georgetown Road, Bethesda. Admission is $15. Call 301-493-5729, e-mail dcmusicaviva@verizon.net or visit dcmusicaviva.org.