Local Arts

This ‘awesome’ classical pianist got hooked on funky rhythms

Phillip Bush
Phillip Bush

Phillip Bush simply did things backward.

Classical pianists born in the second half of the 20th century – especially those who anticipate a steady performing career – are supposed to delve into history, attaching themselves to everybody on the audience-pleasing spectrum from Mozart to Rachmaninov.

Instead, middle-school Phillip got hooked on Bela Bartok, when the New York Philharmonic came to Charlotte and played his Concerto for Orchestra.

“I’d been listening to pop, soul and R&B, and the thing that excited me most about music was rhythm,” he recalls. “I heard the Bartok and thought, ‘You can put funky rhythms and odd meters into classical music!’ So I went on to Prokofiev and Shostakovich. When I went to study at Peabody Institute with Leon Fleisher, who was a big proponent of contemporary music, I’d gotten the idea that this was a worthwhile thing.”

More than four decades later, he’s proven it’s also financially viable. The 58-year-old Bush has played in ensembles specializing in Philip Glass and Steve Reich, wrestled with complex ear-twisting pieces – notably Charles Ives’ 45-minute “Concord” sonata – and spent the last seven years teaching piano majors and chamber musicians at the University of South Carolina.

Not that he can’t appreciate giants from the distant past. His Davidson College program March 10 will take listeners on a 130-year journey, from Mozart’s First Piano Quartet to Brahms’ massive First Piano Quartet to Frank Bridge’s Phantasy Piano Quartet. All this music relies on conventional structures that reigned before Arnold Schoenberg and his crew blew tonality apart.

He’ll take the Tyler-Tallman Hall stage with violinist Joseph Meyer, violist Scott Rawls and cellist Alan Black, who knew Bush when the teenager played in the Charlotte Symphony Youth Orchestra (CSYO) – as a talented cellist.

“He’s an awesome pianist, a real treasure to have in the Southeast,” says Black, the Charlotte Symphony’s principal cellist. “(I’m) glad he chose piano. Otherwise, he’d probably have my job.”

Bush laughs. He started piano at 5 or 6, right around the time his parents relocated from northern New Jersey to Charlotte. He took up cello mainly to play in the orchestra at Randolph Middle School, then became principal CYSO cellist while at East Mecklenburg High School.

“It was a huge boon to know how music sounds on a stringed instrument,” he says. “A pianist hits a note, and it immediately starts to decay. Dealing with the sustained aspects of sound on the cello made me a better piano player.”

Bush had his professional debut at 19 in his adopted hometown, playing Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with the Charlotte Symphony in 1980. But that was a misleading beginning. Before the decade was out, he’d made his Carnegie Hall debut in concertos by Igor Stravinsky and Alexander Goehr and played keyboards with Steve Reich and Musicians and the Philip Glass Ensemble.

“In that kind of (repetitive, patterned music), you are locked into a group groove rhythmically,” he notes. “There are momentary opportunities to articulate differently, but you can’t take something twice as slowly as usual. It’s about keeping this enormous apparatus afloat, because one person can throw a wrench in the works if he falls apart.”

In the ’90s, Bush created the short-lived May Music Festival in Charlotte, bringing music he loved and players he respected to Charlotte for a week of less familiar works. (“It was ahead of its time, unfortunately.”) He also gave the American premiere of the Harpsichord Concerto by Michael Nyman (best known for his soundtrack for “The Piano”) and played in a chamber supergroup in Japan. He was big in Japan.

Violinist Iwao Furusawa had crossed paths with Bush in Canada and proposed annual tours: A quartet from four different countries would play light classics, jazz transcriptions, solo pieces and a movement from a classical masterwork at the end of each half of the concert. At its height, the group zipped across Japan to play 22 shows in 27 days.

You’ll notice that all these experiences were collaborative. Though Bush does play recitals, he says it’s “much more fun to share the stage with others than (endure) the loneliness of solo playing.” These were also the kinds of freelance jobs for which talented musicians scramble, until they long for a steady check and health insurance.

Because “I didn’t want to be hustling for gigs for the next 20 years,” he taught at the University of Michigan from 2000 to 2004. There he met his second wife, Lynn Kompass; when she got a job preparing opera productions at USC, they moved down to Columbia in 2004. Eight years later, he joined the faculty.

Does he encounter a lot of young versions of himself in his classes?

“I’m getting students now who want to work on contemporary music, but a lot of them have scant exposure to music of the last 75 years,” he says. “Composers today bring all sorts of things to the (classical) mix, and I am trying to open students’ ears to that.”

Piano Quartets featuring Phillip Bush

WHEN: 3 p.m. March 10.

WHERE: Tyler-Tallman Hall, Davidson College.

TICKETS: $4.66-$18.65.

DETAILS: 704-894-2135 or davidson.edu.