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Young prodigy expands outreach

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By Pete Zamplas-What will he do for an encore?

Award-winning 13-year-old pianist prodigy Christopher Michael Tavernier of Hendersonville is fine-tuning his craft, expanding his repertoire as well as his community impact to the world of benefit concerts.

Approaching October which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the local youth is teaming with his mentor, Dr. John Cobb, to benefit breast cancer screening. They will play duets this Saturday, Sept. 28 at 7 p.m. in Diana Wortham Theatre. Ticket proceeds benefit Ladies Night Out cancer screening and mammograms.

They will perform symphonic poems of Franz Liszt (1811-86), their favorite. The Hungarian composer is hailed as the most technically-intricate pianist ever, and first to play on a full keyboard. He developed the recital and symphonic poem.

The duo played a free brief preview in the library in Hendersonville last Saturday. Many said they were dazzled by the furiously fast playing, and mature focus and composure of Tavernier. The full show in Wortham will have three large screens. One shows images of Liszt. The other two show close-ups of each pianist’s hands playing.

Tavernier has “really blossomed. He has advanced beyond expectations,” Dr. Cobb said. The “young genius” first played publicly at age nine. “One can fairly say he’s beyond the graduate school level, fully proficient as a performing pianist.”

Christopher’s parents Bob and Kim Tavernier said a full-touring pro career will wait, until their son is grown and “grounded.” “He can fly (solo) now. But we’re not letting him fly yet,” Bob said. “He has so much more to learn.” Dr. Cobb said there is still “maturing musically, to project ever-deeper musical values. That can’t be rushed. He needs performance and life experience — listening to others — to mature as an artist.”

Still, at 13, Christopher gets a taste of his future. He debuts Oct. 24 as evidently the youngest classical concert pianist ever in the state, accompanying the Tar River Philharmonic Orchestra in Rocky Mount. He is a recent Asheville Piano Competition winner, over mainly pre-college teens.

In chess, he was rated among peers as the best in the state when in third grade, and among top handful now. He is in seventh grade in Hendersonville Middle School, an academically-gifted all-A student and math genius. He read 114 books last school year, and rotates five books a week these days. He reads on U.S. history, such as the Industrial Revolution.

Exploring which music to master, he compiled compact discs and musical scores for several thousand classical pieces over centuries. Many school friends like jazz and other styles, he said, and “respect” his classical focus.

“He’s becoming more and more dedicated and focused on music,” and not a rebellious teen, his father said. After school, Christopher practices piano for two hours, eats dinner, studies chess, reads, and is in bed by 8:30 p.m. He unwinds by playing the Scrabble word game or —much moreso — by watching silly television shows with younger brother Nicholas.

Christopher said he wants to be both a concert pianist and chess grand master. He said, “I’m very competitive about chess, about practically everything.”

Yet he has a lighter side. Kim said he thinks of corny plays on musical or math-related words, often at school then “tries it out at home.”

Christopher said he will likely first inject humor into a show on Oct. 24. Frivolity reflects a lighter side to a youngster serious about classical music and a potential career with it, who plays it stoically. Dr. Cobb said his star pupil is “growing in body movement.” He will move his torso rather than remain statuesque, or swing his arm in the air before striking a final chord.

Christopher said it will be “fun” to play comically. He is learning to replicate comical pianist Mark Andre Hamelin playing Rodion Shchedrin’s “Humoresque.” Antics include breaking focus to momentarily turn to the audience, moving a hand over quickly during a flourish, and standing while playing a note.

These contrast from embarrassing and distracting “unconscious facial expression” some pros do not notice when in deep focus, Dr. Cobb said. He said Christopher avoids this.

He loves to improvise at times, with flourishes. “After I get to know the piece better, I add my own stuff.” He does so “when it feels right,” usually in rehearsal and maybe in concert but not in competition where replication is paramount. An example is “Bach has an ‘ornament’ (flourish) in a measure.“I might take the ornament out, and put one in a different measure.”

Most creative and “fun” is composing music. Christopher said in finishing a piece he first wrote at age nine, he noticed he was more “structured” then, now writing “still A-B-A but also free-flowing.”

Above all, he said, “my goal when I perform is to get the message across to the audience, through the music. You can tell by their reaction, whether they got that message. They usually do.” He focuses intently to the final note, then after a pause “I zone out, back to real life” and absorb the response.

His father also performed music publicly. Bob was an organist in a rock band, as a teen in Dearborn, Mich. But he does not play rock music at home, where classical rules. Like Bob, Christopher is “very confident, outgoing and social,” Kim Tavernier said. “I’m more behind the scenes. Nicholas is more like me. He idolizes his brother, and wants to be like him.”

Nicholas turned eight, on Sept. 22. He is the youngest of four Tavernier children, with the two eldest grown. Christopher tutors Nicholas on piano, in summers.

Christopher and Dr. Cobb practice on a pair of baby grand pianos equipped with pedals for concertos, in the Tavernier dining room-turned-piano parlor. Nicholas plays downstairs, on the upright piano his brother started on.

Looking forward to the benefit Saturday, Christopher Tavernier said he is eager to “give back” through such civic functions.

The general admission tickets are $12, $10 for students and children. To reserve them, call Wortham Theatre at 257-4530.

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