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The People's Pianist
The People's Pianist

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Read Gainsford blends rare talent with showmanship to turn up the fun in concert halls.


It would be hard to mistake pianist Read Gainsford for one of those old-school virtuosos—the artiste who strides straight from curtain to instrument, snaps to a courtly bow before his audience, and grins into his polished shoes.

No, Gainsford is a different kind of performer, given to a lot of smiling and—of all things—talking to his audience.

In a bid to connect immediately with listeners across the footlights, Read mixes history, insight and anecdotes about his chosen works at every concert. It's become a Read Gainsford trademark—and people are buying.

It's just one thing that makes Gainsford, who joined the College of Music faculty in 2005, a new breed of pianist: one of a young generation building a closer relationship with classical music audiences.

"If I speak about the music beforehand, people are much more engaged," Gainsford says. "And I design programs that invite connections. For example, I might feature works by several composers, all written in the same key, say, C Minor. I will talk about the fascinating responses Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert each had to that key. Audiences learn something new."

For the visually inclined, this is the equivalent of explaining four painters' responses to the same palette. Most of us take colors for granted, and similarly, we might not recognize the aural shades of particular musical keys, minor or major. Gainsford is like the art expert who illuminates the distinct vision of each painter; except, as a musician, he turns to the piano and re-interprets the music of the composers he has just introduced. Afterward, audience members often seek him out to talk about what they've just heard.

Gainsford's imaginative approach not only sets him apart from traditional virtuosos, it also requires extra work that he approaches head-on.

"Read is a high-energy person," says Karyl Louwenaar Lueck, professor of piano and harpsichord, who chaired the search committee that enthusiastically selected Gainsford in 2005. "He appreciates kudos but is not a braggart. What you see is what you get with Read, and what he is, you can see."

Louwenaar cites Gainsford's spectacular campus performance of Rachmaninoff's third piano concerto with the University Symphony Orchestra in October as one showcase of his musical integrity, as well as his charisma.

"It was spell-binding," she says, "because he was so intensely involved with the music. The audience could not help but listen. He drew us into a very powerful musical event."

And with a full house on its feet, applauding wildly for more, Gainsford took the stage for an encore. He began a Rachmaninoff prelude, stopped mid-measure to announce he'd rather play a different piece—a departure from concert protocol few could pull off—and proceeded to impress with a scintillating, full-bodied interpretation of Scriabin's Prelude for the Left Hand Alone.

"I could close my eyes and swear he was playing with both hands," one listener remarked.

Read Gainsford came to FSU with an impressive résumé: solo debuts at London's Wigmore Hall and Carnegie Hall's Weill Recital Hall, and solo, concerto and chamber music engagements in the USA, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, including performances at the Kennedy Center and Queen Elizabeth Hall. He had recorded for the Amoris label, BBC Radio Three, and Radio New Zealand's Concert Programme, and appeared on national television in three countries.

But behind every wow of a bio lies an intriguing story.

Gainsford was born in the small town of Putaruru, New Zealand, the son of Salvation Army officers. His mother was very musical, but had little training; Gainsford senior was not so inclined, and of Read's four siblings, one sister had musical talent, but chose not to develop it.

"In the Salvation Army, traditional music is very strong," Gainsford says. "So there was musicality around, but no classical music. As I got into my profession, I met people who had lots of classical music at home and went to concerts. I used to envy that."

When Read entered high school, the Gainsfords moved to Auckland, which had more opportunities for the young musician. At first, he "sort of drifted" into piano study not knowing it could be a profession. "I took music as an elective at first," he says.

Eventually he entered a four-year music program at the University of Auckland. But in the third year he announced he would quit, thinking his piano playing "would not do much good for humanity." He decided he should be a doctor, so he could "contribute more to society, " he said.

Just as he was about to downgrade to a three-year diploma, his teachers intervened and talked him into developing his talent further. Around that time he began winning major piano competitions in New Zealand and realized his performances had the potential to "make a difference" in people's lives.

"I didn't understand that when I was 19," he said. When you begin this field of study, you don't know what it's about—you just think you want to play in Carnegie Hall, and you want all that applause. Then you realize performance is really a collaborative process (with the audience)."

After winning a national competition and being named Television New Zealand's Young Musician of the Year in 1984, Gainsford moved to London, where he earned the Concerto Recital Diploma at the Guildhall School of Music. In 1992, he entered the doctoral program at Indiana University, where he studied with the distinguished pianists Leonard Hokansen and Karen Shaw.

"Read is like no other," said Shaw. "At Indiana, his programs exceeded anything we could ask for, in terms of quality, repertoire and even length. For a recital, I'd have to remind him: 'Read, you don't need more than 60 minutes worth of music!' Now he performs at my artist series in Connecticut [the Silvermine Artist Series] and the audiences love him because he plays from the heart."

Of course, teachers are prone to talking up their students, so it pays to get a second opinion from a colleague. Noted oboist and oboe d'amore specialist Jennifer Paull, now of Switzerland, with whom Gainsford has recorded a CD, remembers the first time they played together, for the International Double Reed Society's convention at Indiana University in 1994. Paull did not choose Gainsford; he was assigned to her, as is often the case at conferences.

"I knew immediately that he was an exceptional musician," Paull says. "The bottom line in chamber music is not what you have to say to one another, but what you do not need to say. His technique and knowledge of music were self-evident. From the first note, we began work at a very high level of awareness."

A few years later, Paull wanted to make a CD and needed a pianist. She approached Gainsford, who by then was teaching at Ithaca College.

"One of the works we recorded was Two Mansfield Poems by Edwin Carr—music inspired by two poems of Katherine Mansfield. Read knew more about her than I did from my research. Expressing the 'weight' of her words transferred to music was natural to him. It is Read's broad artistic knowledge that enriches him as a performer and sets him apart. And his musical radar is the most effective I have ever known. With him, music just happens."

Gainsford's love of literature reflects interests well beyond the keyboard; in Ithaca, for example, he belonged to a book discussion group that included the novelists Brian Hall and J. Robert Lennon. He hopes to tap into a similar community in Tallahassee.

"I think I have a proclivity toward finding ways one thing connects to another," he says. He points to his performance of George Crumb's Vox Balaenae ("Voice of the Whale") during the 2004 Light in Winter festival, in Ithaca. The 1972 piece, for three masked players of electric flute, electric cello and amplified piano, was staged at Ithaca's Paleontological Research Institution beneath a 40-foot whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling. Before the performance, the audience heard whale song recordings collected by Cornell University's Bioacoustic Research Project. It was Gainsford's notion; in addition to performing, he was one of the festival's organizers.

Without question, Gainsford has brought his dynamic ideas and organizing skills to Florida State. Last October, at his suggestion, the College of Music held a three-day symposium and festival honoring Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich's centenary (1906-2006). Students, faculty, and guest artists such as the Audubon Quartet participated, along with Shostakovich scholar Malcolm Brown, a graduate of FSU.

Gainsford, together with Leo Welch, the School of Music's assistant dean for public service, and Douglass Seaton, professor of musicology, orchestrated the whole event. Like other performers and scholars, Gainsford feels Shostakovich wrote some of the 20th century's most striking music, much of it colored by the late composer's conflicts with the Soviet government. "It also speaks directly and strongly to audiences," he emphasizes.

Most academic positions in research institutions require, well, research, calling to mind libraries, laboratories, articles and books. But in music performance, one is expected to perform and record. College of Music Dean Don Gibson, who came to FSU the same year Gainsford did, smiles as he recalls the 2005 new faculty orientation. In one meeting, new hires had to stand and describe three things: their degree, their field, and their research. (A professor in the sciences might list, for example, Zoology, insectivores, and the mating habits of hedgehogs.) "When it was Read's turn," says Gibson, "he simply said, 'Piano performance, piano performance, piano performance.' "

So it's no surprise to learn that Gainsford's next project is an intense one: a recording of French composer Olivier Messiaen's monumental Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant Jésus (Twenty Ways of Looking at the Infant Jesus). This work, which takes more than two hours to play, is considered Messiaen's greatest composition for piano, and is not for the faint-hearted. Only a handful of pianists perform it entirely, and fewer have recorded it.

"Actually, I first spoke directly to audiences when I started performing Vingt Regards," says Gainsford, "because it's the kind of music that, to an untrained audience, can be difficult."

Messiaen (1908-1992), a devout Catholic mystic whose musical influences ranged from Gregorian chant to Hindu rhythms to birdsong, created some of the most spiritually and technically complex music of the 20th century. Gainsford is passionate about introducing Vingt Regards to listeners who aren't familiar with the eclectic, ecstatic nature of Messiaen's work. This includes students.

"As a teacher, one of my campaigns is to get students playing the music of their own lifetime," he says. "A lot of people think the 20th century ended with (Claude) Debussy (1862-1918), but that's not true. And so much of the newer music captures more of what the piano is capable of. It makes teaching very exciting."

FSU graduate piano student Justin Bird can attest to the vibrancy of Gainsford's studio. Bird, also a New Zealander, first knew Gainsford as a contact who might help him choose a teacher in the U.S.

"After a few auditions around the country, it finally dawned on me to try studying with him at Ithaca College," he says. "It worked so well I decided to follow him to FSU." Gainsford had just won Ithaca College's Teaching Excellence Award, a campus-wide honor.

"It's not common to find someone who's both an amazing performer and teacher," Bird says. "I learn so much from hearing him play, and also watch him teach his studio class. And he's unorthodox—with him, there's no right way or wrong way. He'll give alternatives, leaving the student free to experiment and explore."

Along these lines, Gainsford encourages his students to engage in some type of organized physical activity outside of music.

"A body work-out is just as important as a mental work-out," he says, noting the increasing number of musician injuries caused by over-practice and lack of all-round exercise.

"Whether it's a dance class, yoga, or swim training, I think it's a good idea."

In Ithaca, Gainsford invited a teacher of Alexander Technique—a method for improving ease of movement—to work with his students. He studied the technique himself in London but these days favors yoga.

"With yoga, everything functions better-—my mind feels clearer, the internal organs work better," he says. "There is a mindset about going into yourself and moving from the inside out, and it touches on everything I find important, in life and art."

Yoga promotes a certain simplicity, but the private life of this musician is not exactly austere. Outside the piano studio, Gainsford indulges in serious cooking and hosting dinner parties.

"I used to enjoy making classic French dishes, but at some point I realized I could get more 'ooh' and 'ahh' for a much simpler dish," he confesses. "Very few people appreciate how many steps you take, how complicated a recipe is, and it's not worth the work at some point."

Still, his newest concoction—a spicy chestnut soup—doesn't exactly bring Betty Crocker to mind. As in music-making and teaching, he prefers to experiment.

Besides teaching at FSU, touring, recording, organizing events and performing culinary feats in his kitchen, Gainsford frequently plays and teaches around the country and overseas. Currently, he serves on Taiwan's International Piano Performance Exam Committee, consulting with music educators there in selecting repertoire for graded examinations, from beginning through advanced levels. He recently made recordings of the examination pieces, which aspiring Taiwanese piano students will receive along with their copies of the music.

"The recordings are especially good for students with no access to sophisticated musical environments," he explains. "They are study tools, and will help guide teachers as well."

Gainsford plans to return to Taiwan in 2007 to lead workshops for piano teachers. "I've seen a need and want to share my experiences in ways that can help them," he says.

Which is just what the new breed of pianist would do. It's not about the piano—it's about what one can contribute by way of the instrument. In fewer than two years, Read Gainsford has already made a colorful mark on FSU and audiences far beyond. And the encores are just beginning.

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