There’s a lot more to the term ‘piano recital’ than meets the eye. Conveying the intense, technical, yet highly spiritual language hovering between the cords is no easy job. As Mark Damisch demonstrated, it’s a skill that takes years to perfect.
The American pianist dazzled audiences at Qubat El-Ghouri with his first performance in Egypt Thursday evening.
“I started playing the organ at the age of four, and then moved on to the piano when I was seven, he said.
By the time Damisch was in his college years, he was playing concerts to raise money for students who wanted to work in legal aid clinics.
So what is it that brings Damisch, an American lawyer and former mayor of his hometown of Northbrook, all the way to Egypt?
“I always wanted to see the Pyramids and Luxor, then I wanted to see Amman and Petra. So that’s really how it got going about 15 months ago. We started working on this a long time in advance, Damisch said.
“We first identified what cities we wanted to go to, and we tried to find places that are willing to donate their time or efforts for a good cause.
But Damisch’s motivation to visit Egypt goes further than a visit to its monuments and mausoleums. For him, this is a chance to offer Egyptian audiences a taste of American culture, a world away from the brash consumerism imported to the East.
“People don’t hear American music, and don’t hear about American art, dance or sculpture, Danisch explains. “I don’t know much about Egyptian music, but from what I’ve heard since I’ve been here, it sounds foreign enough to me that it makes me think: Does American music sound foreign to Arabs and Egyptians?
Damisch, accompanied by his equally gifted daughters, has played all over the world, from China and Japan, to Britain. His concerts are either free, or their proceeds goes straight to charity. Three summers ago, the Damisch family raised $250,000 for cancer research in one night.
“I don’t know of anybody else who does what we do, said Damisch.
Despite being a unique phenomenon, Damisch’s mission has its roots in British tradition, something quite apt, considering he can trace his own ancestry to 16th century England.
“London has a history of having church concerts in the Christopher Wren churches of downtown London. So the church is free and we’re free. I looked around in London for different charities that might be able to spend money for promotion, and whatever they got, they kept, so that’s how it got started.
But Damisch’s first concerts stretch all the way back to his university years. “It was 1975, and I was 18 years old at the time. I decided I wanted to do concerts throughout Western Europe, Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
The modest audience, who came to listen to Damisch in the magnificent Qubat El-Ghouri hardly compares to the extraordinary receptions Damisch has received in other parts of the world, such as China.
“We performed in China three years ago. They sold 1,000 tickets and raised $150,000 in one night for the Red Cross. At the end of the performance, people were lifting their children up to get the girls’ autographs.
But despite the lack of crowds, the intimate audience was equally moved by the Damisch family performance, and, as like Damisch says, these concerts are essentially about bringing people together through the language of music.
After a beautifully melancholic introduction of Chopin, Damisch went on to perform the soulful, dramatic and unmistakably American “Rhapsody in Blue. Performing its lazy rifts and wild polyphonies, with all the vigor and frantic excitement of 1920’s United States, Damisch did justice to Gershwin’s masterpiece as “the musical kaleidoscope of America.
His daughter, Catherine, a bright 18-year-old with a silky voice, brought out the more romantic side to American culture with her recital of “Shenandoah, a traditional American folk-song. It’s a soft, mellifluous song whose lyrics and rhythms conjure up images of the wide Missouri and deep American valleys.
But Damisch’s choice of pieces reflected not only what he felt conveyed his home country, but what he saw most in his host nation.
“I picked the ‘Appassionata Sonata’ this summer, because so much of the Middle East is about passion.
It was unfortunate that his youngest daughter, Alexandra, wasn’t feeling up to performing the first movement of Beethoven’s “Pathetique Sonata, as I was eager to find out why “it wasn’t pathetic, contrary to popular opinion.
However, she did find the strength to take part in the Damisch encore piece. They chose “You’ve Got a Friend performed in three-part harmony.
Damisch’s contribution towards the struggle for peace in the Middle East is about “coming together through music. It’s an oft said mantra, but it has a ring of truth; if more people played the piano, perhaps less would go to war.