The Fantastic Voyage Home: Michael Arnowitt Returns to Barre Opera House

by Michelle A.L. Singer

Central Vermont’s favorite classical pianist completes a “Fantastic Voyage” home this month.

Michael Arnowitt, a 30-year Montpelier resident before moving to Toronto in 2017, returns to the Barre Opera House stage September 15 in a performance to open the Capital City Concerts series.

The 7:30 pm concert, which is also part of the Vermont Arts Council’s Vermont Arts 2018 program, marks Arnowitt’s first major performance since relocating to Toronto, a city in which,  despite its size, he is still able to find similarities to Montpelier.

“Toronto is a city of three or four million people,” he says, “certainly different than Montpelier, but I picked a few neighborhoods that had elements of Montpelier so it was not as much of a culture shock. I looked at places that had small businesses, restaurants that are not chains, an interest in organic food, initiatives that play into the zero waste movement, and grassroots things that remind me of Vermont. I was pleased to find I hadn’t necessarily given up things about living in a smaller-town environment by moving away.”

Arnowitt said he tried to pull together the common elements of storytelling, imagination, and fantasy for his “Fantastic Voyage” program. The concert opens with Schumann’s Fantasiestücke (or “Fantasy Pieces)” Op. 12.

“He took the title from a set of stories written by one of his favorite authors of the time, E.T.A. Hoffmann,” says Arnowitt. “This was the early Romantic period, so the stories had some fantastic elements to them and larger-than-life characters. A lot of them touched upon music, the arts, and poetry.”

The concert will also include a major piece by Chopin, “Ballade in F minor,” which Arnowitt comes back to every 10 or 15 years. Chopin wrote four ballads in his lifetime, and, Arnowitt says, “This is the last one, so it’s a very mature work that really paints an epic story on a big canvas. They say about great masterpieces in music that you can come back to them again and again and keep finding something marvelous and new, and that’s the way it’s been for me for this piece for sure,” he said.

To close the program, Arnowitt will perform Lowell Liebermann’s Gargoyles, which, Arnowitt says, “will put the grand piano at the Barre Opera House to good use.” Arnowitt has reason to know. He was on the original committee that picked out the piano in the late 1980s. “We traipsed down to New York City,” he remembers, “to the Steinway factory. They present you with four mammoth concert grand pianos, and you try the same piece on different pianos, you try different pieces on the same piano, you listen to other pianists play it. We took a secret vote and all voted for the same piano. It’s a great piano, and I definitely have quite a few pieces that showcase all 88 keys—the range of the piano.”

Arnowitt’s concert will be enjoyed by a community that has a special fondness for him, says Susan Bettmann, director of the 2004 Goldstone Award-winning documentary film about him entitled Beyond 88 Keys, the Music of Michael Arnowitt.

“He’s had a really good, responsive audience here in the Montpelier area especially, and throughout Vermont,” Bettmann said. “He always puts a lot of thought into programming, and his way of looking at musical programming is unique and inventive and really fascinating. It will be nice to have him back here and see what he’s come up with.”

Part of Arnowitt’s visit to Montpelier will be an outreach program at Montpelier High School. He will be working with Kerrin McCadden’s creative writing poetry class, playing musical excerpts and talking about literary references in music.

“I’m excited for my students to learn about how the arts can ‘talk’ to each other—where inspiration comes from, and how to tap into our deep imagination,” says McCadden.

Arnowitt is also promoting his new two-disc album entitled Sweet Spontaneous, a survey of 14 of his jazz compositions. Just released in July, it is available at Buch Spieler Records in Montpelier and will be for sale at the concert.

“I think it’s a really colorful recording,” he says. “There are five to nine instruments tailored to each song. Hopefully, it shows the creative ideas I’ve come up with in jazz. Some of the songs might be compositions people in Montpelier have heard me play over the last 10 years. Some are brand new,  but they’re all going to sound different because they’ve been arranged for the particular instruments. I’m pleased with it and hope my home base of Montpelier will check it out.”

For more information about the concert and to charge tickets ($15–$25 each or subscription tickets— four concerts for $85) go to capitalcityconcerts.org. Tickets may also be purchased (cash or check only) in person at Bear Pond Books, Montpelier.

“The first time I realized how incredible he was, was when I saw him conduct Bach’s “Mass in B minor” with no music in front of him. It was like, ‘How can he remember all that? And how does he get such a profound experience from the orchestra and the chorus?’”

Sandy Morningstar

“Michael and I did political work together in the ’80s and ’90s. He was instrumental in getting recycling going in the Central Vermont area, but he was also very involved in anti-war work when the United States was going to war against Iraq in the early ’90s. It’s wonderful that he’s coming back to what I would call his home community, that loves him and has supported his career since he began, to both enjoy his music but also to see Michael.”

Joseph Gainza

“I was Michael’s faculty advisor in 1984 at Goddard when he was doing his last semester there. He was very interested in ecology. He was a very thoughtful, very searching person, and was sincere about social change and living within our ecological means.”

Sara Norton

“Michael has earned the top spot in the hearts of our Central Vermont audience for good reason. He is a born pianist with compelling musical convictions, formidable technique, and the remarkable ability to communicate with the audience. Time after time he has woven his community building with social justice, artistry, and imagination by producing concerts with a cause. He is a hero and a treasure.”

Karen Kevra

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