Back in the early 1970s, Columbia Records president Clive Davis decided to capitalize on the tremendous popularity of offbeat keyboard virtuosos of the day: Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman were busy with their rock arrangements of classical favorites, Walter Carlos and Isao Tomita were busy “switching on” classical music by performing it on Moog synthesizers, and back at CBS veteran organist E. Power Biggs was working on an album of Scott Joplin rags played on the pedal harpsichord. Into this environment Davis launched one of CBS’s more unusual classical record careers. He took a young and brilliant wunderkind of the keyboard from California, who happened to practice Zen meditation and who had long hair and wire-rim glasses, and marketed him as the keyboard guru of the Pepsi generation. His name? Anthony Newman.
Newman’s image then was carefully calculated for him. Photos and record covers rarely showed him wearing anything but denim. That and his lightning-fast interpretations of Bach harpsichord and organ favorites gained him enormous popularity with rock-oriented audiences, but many serious-music enthusiasts automatically dismissed him, seeing in him the crude virtuosity of a superhyped young upstart who was trying to impress his listeners by speeding through pieces.
Newman is now getting the respect he deserves. His once-controversial fast tempos are commonplace among informed early-music performers. There is also a growing respect for his inventiveness. Newman has always been an innovative performer; he was the first American to record a one-instrument-per-part set of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, including period instruments and conducting from the harpsichord. Fifteen years later, he is in the process of releasing the first complete set of Beethoven piano concertos played on fortepiano and period instruments on the Newport Classic label. The first installment, the Concerto no. 3, was even hailed as “Record of the Year” by Stereo Review.
Newman’s own experimental and virtuosic works are known and performed by keyboardists and orchestras throughout the world. His Organ Symphony no. 1 features a tortuous and whimsical finale that includes 23 unconventional and powerful variations on “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and is dedicated to Chicago keyboardist (and former Newman student) David Schrader, who has recorded the work and often plays it on tour. Its finale will be performed by Newman during his Chicago appearance this week.
Newman’s highly acclaimed 1985 book Bach and the Baroque: A Performing Guide to Baroque Music With Special Emphasis on the Music of J.S. Bach permanently laid to rest the notion that his performances are without scholarly and historical basis, and established him as an important early-music scholar with a gift for communicating pedagogical information in an entertaining manner. His reputation was enhanced when he published his detailed Schirmer editions of Bach works for performers seeking revolutionary findings about early music performance practices.
Newman is primarily associated with the music of Bach, as a conductor and as a performer on clavichord, harpsichord, or his first love, the organ. He has recorded the complete organ works of Bach three times, including a spectacular new digital set in progress for Newport. His technique in playing this music is unparalleled, and he is universally regarded as one of Bach’s greatest living interpreters. “Bach still makes up 90 percent of my performing repertoire, and it was the organ that first attracted me to his music,” says Newman. “Back in California, when I was five or six years old, I began struggling with the big pieces, although I was ten before my feet were long enough to reach the organ pedal board.”
Newman’s special way with Bach will be very much in evidence at his appearance at Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan, Friday, April 15, at 7:30 PM, in an Allied Arts organ recital that will include some of Bach’s most glorious large pieces, including the E-flat Major “Saint Anne” Prelude and Fugue and the massive Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor. In addition, Bach’s more subdued side will be heard in several chorale preludes to be performed between each of the larger works as contrast and punctuation.
Two chorales of Cesar Franck are also on the program (nos. 2 and 3), music not traditionally associated with Newman. Newman’s own music will round out the program. In addition to the finale of his “Battle Hymn” Organ Symphony, Newman will improvise two movements based on themes submitted to him by members of the audience. Newman’s improvisational skills are legendary and have been emulated by scores of young players of many musical styles.
Tickets for the recital (unreserved seating) are $6 at the Orchestra Hall box office, 435-6666.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Arthur Paxton.