A night of Gershwin
Published 12:27 pm, Wednesday, March 9, 2016
NEW CANAAN — Paul Bisaccia needed only his piano and his favorite composer — George Gershwin — to turn the Adrian Lamb Room of New Canaan Library into a concert hall and a history lesson in American music.
Bisaccia is a celebrated concert pianist who has toured Europe and hosted PBS television specials “Gershwin by Bisaccia,” “Paul Bisaccia and the Great American Piano,” and “Chopin by Bisaccia.” He considers Gershwin the greatest American composer and filled many of the breaks during his March 3 concert with anecdotes about the musician, and from his own nearly six decades spent playing the piano.
“I fell in love with the piano when I was 4 years old,” Bisaccia said of his musical roots. “I went to my great-grandmother’s house in East Douglas, Massachusetts, and she had an older piano in the parlor. I knew I was going to play the piano the minute I saw that.” He began taking formal lessons soon after.
As a teenager he toured Europe with the Greater Hartford Youth Orchestra before going on to study the instrument at a the Hartt School, the performing arts conservatory of the University of Hartford, where Bach, Chopin, Liszt and other composers in the classical canon were his focus.
It wasn’t until heavy snowfall in 1978 caused the roof to collapse on the Hartford Civic Center, putting the city’s biggest music venue out of commission, that he fell in love with the music of Gershwin. Sensing a void in Hartford’s musical offerings, the Sheraton Hotel downtown decided to hire a pianist to entertain its guests. Bisaccia landed the gig, and for three years he played six days a week, four hours a night at the Sheraton, alternating between classical music on more subdued evenings and Broadway show tunes and Top 40 on rowdier nights. Always, the music of Gershwin earned him a favorable response.
“I couldn’t wait to play more Gershwin,” Bisaccia explained to the crowd, citing the versatility of the composer’s music. “You can play it in concerts, at club dates, for friends in a living room.”
Perched at his piano bench Bisaccia animatedly played “Maple Leaf Rag,” waltzes by Scott Joplin and Richard Rodgers, a Creole piece by Louis Moreau Gottschalk with “a lot of glittering runs in the right hand,” John Philip Sousa’s stately “Washington Post March,” and much Gershwin. He ended with a powerful piano transcription of the symphonic poem, “An American in Paris,” originally written for a symphony orchestra, but played with a vigor that more than compensated, which clocked in at over 16 minutes.
“It’s fun to make the piano sound like a full symphony orchestra. You can really make the piano thunder. When you’re imitating an orchestra, being able to thunder is really good,” he said.
For the duration of the evening, Bisaccia, now 60, bounced off the keys spasmodically, flipping his sandy-blonde hair on faster tunes with each jerk of his body and sometimes leaping clear off the bench, or slowing his body almost to a stop and closing his eyes meditatively during the rare somber numbers, such as Gershwin’s “Prelude Two,” which he described as a “bluesy lullaby.”
“People come up and say, ‘Oh you must be exhausted after that.’ No, I mean, I can sit and play all day long,” Bisaccia said after his performance, showing no visible signs at all of fatigue.
“The music he wrote is so memorable. The themes are so memorable. Everything about it is embraceable,” Bisaccia said as he packed to leave.