• Pianist to perform free concert Saturday at Mariner Theatre
by Christina Whiting
Had 13-year-old musician Jimmy Gao not taken to the piano so well, the young pianist might now be spending more time practicing table tennis rather than at the keyboard.
Table tennis’s loss is the music world’s gain.
Gao said when he performs, he hopes to infuse listeners with the story he’s trying to share.
“Composers put a lot of ideas and minute nuances into a piece of music,” Gao said. “When I play, I tell the story to the piano and the piano tells the story to anyone listening — including me. I want the feeling and intensity of the story to stay with the audience when they walk away.”
Last year, Gao took first place in the Alaska Piano Competition at the University of Alaska Anchorage. This year, he tied for second in the junior division.
During the early May competition, Gao performed three works: a classical piece by Ludwig van Beethoven called “Allegretto,” Francis Poulenc’s “Novelette,” and a waltz by Auguste Durand called “Premiere Valse, Opus 83, No.1.” Judges chose his performance of Durand’s piece to be performed during the Honors Recital.
“I just went into the competition to play what I’d been practicing and to play my best,” Gao said. “I wasn’t stressed about winning.”
Gao equally appreciates each of the pieces he performed.
“Each period has its own style,” he said. “Romantic is more sentimental, classical is down-to-earth and the emotions are easy to grasp, twentieth-century is very difficult in terms of technicality and being able to interpret, and Baroque is more polyphonic with its own unique feel and interpretation.”
Gao began playing piano at the age of seven, when his family moved to Homer from China. He performed publically for the first time when he was 10, and has performed in Homer Council on the Arts’ annual showcase of local youth talent, Jubilee, for the past three years.
“The piano is the only instrument where multiple keys can be hit together at the same time to produce multiple notes,” he said. “It’s basically an orchestra in its own right.”
Gao’s first piano teacher was his father — who did not himself play the piano. The younger Gao, however, said his father has a “good ear for it.”
“My father taught me to see the details inside of everything,” he said.
Since 2011, Gao has studied with Joel Pietsch of Homer’s Harbor School of Music and Dance.
“When I first came to Joel, my form was terrible,” Gao said. “My fingers would lock up and I didn’t know how I should interpret the music I was playing.”
Gradually, over the years, Gao has learned technique and how to interpret and feel the music more.
“Joel helped me realize there’s a bigger world out there than just hitting the right notes,” he said. “Even though there are no words, each piece has its own musical story of what the composer was going through at the time they wrote the music.”
For example, when Gao plays Beethoven’s darker pieces, he said can feel the despair the composer was experiencing in going deaf. When he plays Beethoven’s lighter pieces, he can feel the composer’s resignation of acceptance and calm.
Dedicated to the music he loves, Gao plays piano at home for three hours a day, seven days a week; he takes lessons twice-a-week.
Pietsch recognized Gao’s natural talent early on.
“Jimmy pays great attention to detail and his retention and application of musical and technical instruction sets him apart from the average 13-year-old music student,” Pietsch said. “We spend a lot of time in the studio, working on building a solid foundation of technique and musicianship, beyond the notes on the page. This foundation of technique allows Jimmy to play so expressively, in a manner that would seem beyond his years.”
It can take Gao two to three weeks to achieve the technical aspects of a new piece, and takes him anywhere from two to three months to a year to “master” his interpretation of the music.
“There is always something more I can bring out from a piece,” he said.
Videos of Jimmy’s performance at the Alaska Piano Competition can be viewed at the Harbor School of Music and Dance Facebook page.
Gao will perform at the Harbor School of Music and Dance recital on Saturday, May 17, 5 p.m. at Homer High School’s Mariner Theatre. This free community event will showcase Gao’s talent, as well as the talents of other young musicians and dancers in the area. The public is invited and encouraged to attend.
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