When she took part in the Musical Awakenings educational outreach program for the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, Jade Simmons tended to take the students she saw by surprise.
“It takes you into 20 schools in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, with a mostly minority demographic,” said Simmons, who as an African-American female is a rarity in the world of classical pianism. “And when I walk into an all-black school, I’m with a white guy, Buddy Bray, pianist for the Fort Worth Symphony, and a white lady who’s the director of the program.
“And we walk in, and I can’t tell you how shocked they are that I’m the one who sits down at the piano. They’re like, ‘Wait, we didn’t see that coming.’ And immediately I’ve got their attention,” said Simmons, who was the first Webcast host for the Cliburn in 2009 and will do it again next year. “And then I have about 45 minutes to prove to them that classical music is almost as cool as what they listen to on the radio.”
But while she is happy to reach out to other young black women to encourage them to pursue a career in classical piano, she said she realizes “that’s not the message.”
“The message is that you, too, can carve out the kind of future, and the kind of career, that you want,” she said.
Simmons comes to the Kravis Center tonight to give the opening recital in the West Palm Beach venue’s Young Artists Series. Her program will be based on the idea of variation, and specifically the Caprice No. 24 for solo violin of Nicolo Paganini, which has been used by other composers for sets of variations almost since the Caprices were published as Paganini’s Op. 1 in 1820.
Simmons will play the Liszt Paganini Etude No. 6, Robert Mucyzinski’s Desperate Measures, and the contemporary Turkish pianist and composer Fazil Säy’s Paganini Jazz, all takeoffs on the caprice. Sergei Rachmaninov, who wrote an enormously popular work for piano and orchestra based on that same tune, will be represented on Simmons’ program by his Corelli Variations (Op. 42), which is built on the medieval Spanish dance tune known to the Italian Baroque violinist and composer Arcangelo Corelli as La Folia, which Corelli used in a sonata.
She’ll also play Rachmaninov’s Etude-Tableau No. 2 (in A minor) from his Op. 39 set, as well as his early, and famous, Prelude (in C-sharp minor, Op. 3, No. 2), which uses the Dies irae chant from the Catholic Mass of the Dead. The recital will conclude with an improvisation on a melody by Rachmaninov.
“I like to program in a way that has a through-story, both musically and personally for me, and I try to have that story unveiled in the course of the concert,” she said. “I love the fact that Liszt was inspired by what Paganini was doing to push the technical boundaries of his instrument … the underlying theme is also music that has haunted us. This Paganini theme has haunted so many composers in a wonderful way.”
Rachmaninov, too, was fascinated by the piece, and he’s her favorite composer.
“I also find that for me, his music has been something that has haunted me. So there is that kind of theme of tunes that won’t let you go,” she said. “I find that I play this Etude-Tableau on almost every program that I do. It’s a piece that I can’t seem to let go. And that’s the personal tie for me; I feel like I’m going to be playing it as long as I’m playing.”
Simmons, 34, grew up in Charleston, S.C., and began playing the piano at 8. She studied at Northwestern University and Rice University in Houston, where she was a pupil of Jon Kimura Parker, and where she now lives with her husband Jahrell, an air-traffic controller, and their 5-year-old son, Jaden.
While at Northwestern, she entered the Miss America 2000 contest in 1999 as Miss Illinois, and came in as first runner-up.
“The Miss America experience has always been something I’ve been confused about how to use,” she said, speaking by phone from Charleston, where she was visiting for the Thanksgiving holiday. “I find that when people get to know me first, and then the pageant thing is something they find out later, it’s much better for me.”
But she’s proud of how much she grew as a person during her pageant days, and adds that her time there did help her keyboard artistry. Her advocacy issue as the first runner-up was suicide prevention, and it took her to schools across the country. Some of what she encountered on that tour apparently deepened her music, as her piano teacher at Northwestern, Sylvia Wang, discovered when Simmons returned to Wang’s studio.
“She said, ‘Who were you studying with while you were out traveling?’ And I said I’d barely had time to practice. And she said, ‘Well, you sound better,’” Simmons said. “There’s something about real-world experience and seeing other people’s real pain and real drama, as opposed to your idea of what real pain and real drama sounds like. “
Simmons’ interests range widely in music and business, as can be seen on her website, jademedia.org. Her debut CD, Revolutionary Rhythm (2009), contains music by Corigliano, Russell Pinkston, Samuel Barber (the Piano Sonata, Op. 26), and three Hip-Hop Studies by Daniel Bernard Roumain, the Haitian-American violinist and composer who grew up in Broward County. There’s also an EP called Playing With Fire, in which Simmons teams with beatmaster Roburt Reynolds, and a blog of useful career advice called Emerge Already!
Perhaps unsurprisingly given all that, she is an advocate for a more progressive presentation of classical music in general, something that she has talked about in a TED lecture called The Art of the Modern-Day Concert.
“As an artist, especially in classical music, we’ve taken so many pains to make sure that we’re not commercial that we’ve forgotten – and this going to sound like blasphemy – how to sell ourselves and sell our product,” she said. “So a lot of what I’ve been doing with other artists is teaching them how to become the boss of their own art, and think of themselves not just as artists, but as an artistic product.
“How do we market that in a way so that people will come and sit in the seats so we can actually have an audience for this thing that we’ve been working 12 hours a day on? There’s sort of a sacredness that we put on the music – which I think is wonderful; the music is sacred, the composers are sacred – but we almost feel ashamed to say to someone: ‘Come hear me play this music,’” she said.
In the coming months, Simmons will be playing Gershwin’s Concerto in F and his rarely heard Second Rhapsody at concert venues in Illinois, and working up the Rachmaninov Second Concerto. She’d like to do a disc of the three of the most familiar Beethoven sonatas – the Pathétique, Moonlight and Appassionata – and pair them with Corigliano’s Fantasia on an Ostinato, which uses the slow movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony as its basis.
Simmons also is exploring the idea of doing a mixtape, and late last month, she ended a recital rapping, which she calls “a great mode of expression.”
“It’s not that I’m saying everybody has to do something as far-out as that … but what I am saying is we have to be true to ourselves as performers. What I was telling the audience was that it kind of came to this point where I was looking at how I was operating as a performer, and found that I was having to be two different people,” she said.
“And I thought, ‘What if I just dare to bring these two Jades into one space at once? Isn’t there an audience that would be OK with that?’”
Even when it’s just the one Jade, she tries to remember where the other one has been.
“It’s funny, as much as I love pushing the envelope, playing with electronics, usually when I do it for a while, all I want to do is play Beethoven afterwards,” she said. “So Kravis will be like that, and I’m excited about it. But even when we (performers) do play classical music in its truest form, I think there’s still a way to present it that feels fresh and new.
“And that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Jade Simmons performs at the Rinker Playhouse at the Kravis Center beginning at 7:30 tonight. Tickets are $30, or $80 for all four Young Artists Series programs. Call 832-7469 or visit www.kravis.org.