|Artists & Groups
Once upon a time there were three musicians -- a pianist, cellist and violinist -- who had an unconventional approach to classical music. The usual thing for a piano trio is to work up a concert repertoire -- some Beethoven, Brahms, Shostakovich and Haydn, plus a few other odds and ends -- to dress up in formal wear and play these classics to sedate, respectful audiences in quiet concert halls. These three didn't do that. They named their trio "St. Elvis," they played music by relative unknowns such as Kalomiris, Weiner, and Muczynski, and they treated their audiences to the combination of passionate performance and onstage theatrics more commonly encountered at a rock concert. When their founding violinist dropped out they found another, younger and more gifted. The newly-configured trio shared an irreverent approach, an intense commitment to new music, and each of them had the good looks and charisma you'd expect in a pop star. When they caught the eye of a record producer and sat down to record their first album you'd have sworn they were on their way to being the biggest break-out act to hit chamber music since the Kronos Quartet.
Well, I'd have sworn it, anyway, when I was swept away by the power of their playing. What I should have remembered is what happens when volatile and creative people, whose gifts are matched by underlying insecurities, are subjected to the pressure that comes with a push for that big breakthrough. I am perhaps better placed than anyone to try to reconstruct the complicated story of how and why St. Elvis unraveled. There's nowhere near enough space here to tell that story. Suffice it to say that the trio did indeed begin to pull apart, and the album was never released. The violinist went his own way in California, and the cellist and pianist, formerly good friends, became estranged, with bitterness over the break-up for a long while thwarting any hope of reconciliation. As it happened, I remained in contact with both, and when the time came when forgiveness seemed possible, was able to help reopen the channels of communication and then watch with joy as they came back together again. It wasn't long before pianist Maria Choban and cellist Jerry Bobbe began to set aside time for a weekly playing session. As they rediscovered the pleasure of making music together, they began to realize that St. Elvis had been subject to a premature burial. The group had never restricted itself to the trio repertoire, and a program of music for cello and piano seemed the perfect way to let the world know that St. Elvis lives. This program of music from the Western Hemisphere continues Fireflight's mission to bring the public underplayed gems of American Music, and at the same time gives notice in no uncertain terms that St. Elvis is back in the building.
Ivory Crush (Formally d.u.o.)
Ivory Crush is the team of pianists Kenn Willson and Maria Choban. whose goal is to rescue music for four hands, whether on one piano or two, from its status as a sadly neglected step-child. Ivory Crush aims to bring a wider audience to music that, can still, under the right twenty fingers, astonish, rouse, and delight.
Maria was born in Oregon to Greek parents. She began picking out tunes on a toy piano at age three, started formal lessons at age 6 and was winning competitions by her teens. She was a founding member of the iconoclastic trio St. Elvis. In 1996 she won fellowships for a research trip to Greece, the fruits of which have been the creation of The Greek Music Project for her Fireflight label which has just released her first solo recording, Greek Rapture, featuring music by Kalomiris, Papaioannou, and Hadjidakis.
There once was a Montana lad growing up in the town of Big Timber near the Yellowstone Valley, who taught himself to read music when he was six. Kenn spent four years playing piano on his own before a teacher was finally corralled to begin his formal training. He took well to instruction and in due time moved to Oregon to pick up first his BA and then his Master of Music degree in Piano Performance. His thirst for education still unquenched, Willson ventured off to the University of Northern Colorado for a Doctor of Arts degree in Piano Performance and Pedagogy. He employs the latter skill as Associate Professor of Music at George Fox University, the former as keyboardist for Southminster Presbyterian Church, and in concerts and recordings as the starting right tackle of the piano duo Ivory Crush. Willson has won acclaim for his digital command, his versatility, his teamwork, and his sense of humor.
Jerry Bobbe's life has revolved around his passions, but its course has been shaped by his perfectionist drives and his determination to take charge of his own destiny. If you had asked the young Jerry 34 years ago where he expected to be today, he could have simply pointed at his former teacher and mentor Frank Miller, the esteemed principal cellist of the Chicago Symphony, regarded by many as the best in the business. Everything in Bobbe's background suggested a smooth transition to a similar career as principal cellist with one of the nation's symphony orchestras. He was first the rising teenaged star who had won a full scholarship to Chicago Musical College to study with controversial teacher Karl Fruh, had profited from intermittent study sessions with the great Leonard Rose, had played the Dvorak and Lalo Cello Concertos on local TV with the WGN Orchestra, and Bloch's "Schelomo" with the Chicago Civic Orchestra. He had served as principal cellist of the latter orchestra, and held the same position with the Chicago Chamber Orchestra. He had left Chicago to serve as Assistant Principal Cellist of the Milwaukee Symphony, and had then moved on to yet another Principal Cellist job with the Florida Orchestra.
But when Bobbe became frustrated with his musical progress, his life took a sharp turn off the expected path. As a teen he had nurtured a strong interest in early American copper coins. In 1972 he had discovered an under-explored corner of the coin realm-Provincial Token Coinage of Eighteenth Century England-- and the lure of a new passion was decisive. He walked away from the musical career he had been training for and plunged himself full-time into the world of rare and valuable coins. His talents in numismatics proved as rare as his musical skills, and he had soon carved out a successful career grading and trading coins, with his beloved cello now as a labor of love rather than professional preoccupation. 16 years after he abandoned the orchestral fast track, Bobbe was ready to be lured back into the world of professional performance, as a founding member of the iconoclastic trio St. Elvis. Throughout the ups and downs since that point, he has continued to juggle both careers. On the one hand are the hours he devotes to his cello students, and to practice and performance, including a decade as principal cellist of the Vancouver (WA) Symphony, which he capped off with a triumphant public performance of the Dvorak Concerto. On the other hand is his continuing presence in the world of coins, with Web sites devoted to their sale, and steady work in the delicate field of restoration, as well as regular appearances in lectures and seminars at professional conferences of the American Numismatic Association; he contributes to a monthly column for the ANA's monthly "Numismatist".
In his professional and private life he is the ever-insistent advocate, ready to launch into fierce diatribes against music teachers whose shoddy instruction leads to injury, against coin dealers who engage in theft and fraud, and against government leaders who do likewise. He is also the warm-hearted performer who will don the hat and moustache of Charlie Chaplin for a performance of the comic's music, and who donates his talents to the Children's Cancer Association and fills the halls of hospitals with the beauty of his cello's sound.