Beethoven Lives in Asheville
By: Beth Browne
Some people find their passion at an early age, others flail around for decades doing different things before they find something they are passionate about and others take a more circuitous route, coming around later in life to a childhood passion. Dan Weiser has taken the latter route.
When he was just five years old, Dan sat down at the family piano. His older brother and sister had been taking piano lessons and one day little Dan, who had never had a lesson, just started reading the music and playing it. “I must have been somehow wired to play,” he says. Very shortly after that both his brother and sister gave up the piano, having been soundly bested by their baby brother. Recognizing his talent, his parents engaged a local concert pianist who taught Dan for a couple of years until he entered the prep department at New England Conservatory where he was introduced to chamber music. He says playing the piano always felt very lonely and playing chamber music appealed to him because he got to play with other musicians.
When he was twelve the family moved to Buffalo and Dan couldn’t find a teacher there he liked. So, at fourteen, he quit taking lessons. His mother was distraught, but he just didn’t want to practice and she had to let go. Fortunately, they discovered a summer music camp in New Hampshire, the Apple Hill Chamber Music Camp and Dan kept his love of music going during the summers.
With no intention of doing anything with music, Dan started college at Columbia University as a history major. In need of a few easy credits, he picked up a music class and began studying with a Norwegian professor named Niels Ostbye. Under his tutelage, Dan discovered he really liked playing piano and he started playing more for the love of it instead of to please his mother. But he still wasn’t sure he wanted to do anything with it. He was planning on staying at Columbia for his doctorate in history until he happened to take a class from Jack Greenberg, one of the attorneys on the Brown v. Board of Education case. The class was called “Law and Social Change” and it inspired him to go to law school to try to change the world. After graduation, he took a year off and took a few classes at Juilliard, but when he was accepted into the Harvard Law School he decided he couldn’t pass that up.
He liked the intellectual exercise of arguing, but otherwise he hated law school and spent much of his time there protesting along with Barack Obama to get more minority professors at the school. As Dan’s first year at Harvard drew to a close, his friends were all getting excited about summer jobs in corporate law but Dan thought that sounded “awful.”
At the end of the year, Dan and a couple of his fellow students performed as a trio for faculty and students at Harvard. After the performance one of Dan’s professors, Martha Minow, came up to speak to him. She had seen the joy on his face as he played and told him firmly, “We don’t need another lawyer. Go be a musician.”
Dan took her advice and started trying to get into a music conservatory. He spent the next year practicing like crazy and began auditioning for graduate music programs. At the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore he auditioned for Samuel Sanders, a well-known collaborative pianist who had worked with Itzhak Perlman and had helped to discover Joshua Bell. Sanders saw the potential in Dan, despite the fact that he had not played seriously in several years, and admitted him to the school. Dan specialized in chamber music and stayed at Peabody to earn both a master’s and a doctorate. He also started doing opera coaching and working with singers.
After graduation, he got a job teaching at Dartmouth College and in 2001 he started a chamber music organization called Classicopia to bring chamber music to various small venues in the community and make it more accessible to people. Dan still plays with Classicopia, although he moved away from New Hampshire in 2009 when his wife, a gastroenterologist, got a job in Asheville, NC. At the time he knew nothing about the Asheville area except that the mountains looked a lot like the area where they had been living in Vermont.
For a while, he tried to continue the mission of Classicopia in Asheville, but ultimately it got too complicated trying to collaborate from such a distance and he decided to start a new organization with a similar mission in Asheville. And so AmiciMusic was born. His goal is to bring chamber music to the people, “to make it a little less stuffy and less serious. When you mention chamber music to people they say, ‘I don’t listen to that,’ because they have some vision of people in tuxedos acting proper. There’s nothing really proper about our concerts, we do a lot of fun and wild stuff.” Even people who know chamber music say they enjoy hearing the tidbits about the composers that Dan and the other musicians share between the songs.
AmiciMusic has brought musicians from around the country to Asheville and they have played chamber music in bars, people’s homes, assisted living communities and schools. He’s proud to be providing employment for the musicians and also bringing an appreciation of chamber music to the community. One of the main benefits to performing chamber music in a small venue, such as a private home or a bar is that you can see the musicians sweat and feel the vibrations of the music in the floor and this is how chamber music was intended to be played. “That’s what people find so exciting. It’s almost like rock music when the energy is going.”
AmiciMusic’s mission is to change people’s perceptions of classical music. It’s a long process, but Dan hopes more people will come to it. As the current audience ages, it’s critical to bring this music to the younger generation. Dan has been performing in area elementary schools, doing a show he calls “Beethoven Lives in Asheville” where he dresses up in a crazy wig and pretends to be Beethoven. The children love it so much that after one concert a little boy begged his mother to invite Beethoven to his birthday party because he said he thought Beethoven would be fun at a party. “That’s the essence of it all,” says Dan, “to try to get these kids not to think of Beethoven as some dead guy writing great music but to show them that his music still lives.”
Dan also performs at assisted living communities and says it’s a real joy to bring this music to older people who really appreciate it but can’t always get out to a concert. The nice thing about chamber music is that it’s so portable you can take it anywhere as long as there’s a piano. In addition to the classical music, they play Gershwin and Cole Porter and some show tunes. At an early performance in Vermont, the group played “Ol’ Man River” from Showboat and afterwards an elderly lady came up to him with tears in her eyes and told Dan she had been at the 1927 premiere of Showboat with her father when she was a little girl. To these older people, it’s part of their living history.
Bringing all this great music to so many different venues takes a lot of time and costs money. Dan is very proud to be providing employment for so many wonderful musicians, many of whom travel from out of state to perform in Western North Carolina. To pay the musicians and their expenses, Dan works hard at fundraising. With three great symphonies in the area, there are a lot of people who are passionate about classical music. And for a chamber music concert there are only three or four musicians to pay instead of dozens in a symphony. “For a few hundred dollars, your money can go a long way towards bringing great music into different places.” One of the special things about AmiciMusic is that there are virtually no administrative costs. Dan takes care of all that and only pays himself as a musician. All of the money he raises goes directly into bringing great music into the community. His goal is to raise $60,000 this year and to build on that in the future. But he’ll take what he can get. Four hundred dollars can bring Beethoven to hundreds of schoolchildren.
In between organizing performances in the community, Dan is now teaching piano to his six-year-old twins, Emma and Sophie, who began playing when they were four. At two and three, Sophie liked to sit on Dan’s lap at the piano and she would close her eyes and rest her little hands on his as he played. Of course, when she sat down to play on her own at age four, it came naturally to her, “her hands were in this perfect position as if she’d known it all her life.” Emma has much longer fingers and they didn’t quite work at first, but she got so excited listening to Sophie play that she worked hard and soon caught up. Dan says it was one of his most gratifying moments when the girls recently played a “four-handed” piano duet at one of his recitals. “I was more nervous watching them play that than I’ve been at any of my own concerts,” he says with a chuckle.
Full of passion for what he does, Dan has played in venues all over the world. The only thing he requires is a piano. And sometimes he just has to cope. Once he braved a winter storm in the Adirondacks with his ensemble and he got there and found five of the black keys missing on the piano! He says it was a little weird but he played on it anyway. He laughs and says, “I’ve played on everything.” In 1996 Dan served as Artistic Ambassador on a tour of the Middle East and Southeast Asia in a duo with a violinist. They arrived at a venue in Pakistan and Dan looked around and asked the guide where the piano was and he went off and came back with a one-octave accordion- type thing the likes of which Dan had never seen before. He just had to laugh. He’d met his match. He had no idea how to play the thing and the poor violinist had to play solo. He says it’s part of the challenge to play on less-than-perfect pianos and make it sound great.
Locally, AmiciMusic plays regularly at White Horse Black Mountain, a former Chevy dealership with cabaret tables that used to have only rock and folk music. Dan found out that one of the owners, Kim Hughes, had studied opera in New York and he organized a show called “Divas and Drafts” and found the crowd loved the diversity of music they brought. A member of the audience came up to Dan at a break and said, “Nothing better than opera with your beer!” And Dan had to agree.
Visit www.amicimusic.org for complete details and info on future concerts.
House concerts by reservation only by contacting Dan at 505-2903 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. To get on the AmiciMusic e-mail list in order to find out about directly about future concerts, please e-mail Dan at email@example.com.
Tax-deductible contributions to help bring this great music into schools, assisted living homes, and more communities in the region can be sent to:
AmiciMusic, 75 Edwin Place, Asheville, NC 28801.
Beth Browne writes because she just can’t stop herself. Her two kids wish she liked cooking as much as writing. In her spare time she enjoys sailing with her salty mate, Eric, and blogging at: http://bbwomenswrites.blogspot.com.
Visit www.amicimusic.org for complete details and information
on future concerts.
AmiciMusic presents “An American Affair” with violinist Tim Schwarz and pianist Daniel Weiser. Music of Amy Beach, Bernstein, Copland, and more:
Friday, June 1 at 7:30PM at location TBD
Saturday, June 2 at 7:30PM at House Concert in The Cliffs
Sunday, June 3 at 3:00 at House Concert in North Asheville
The Francis & Weiser Piano Duo present “One Wild Ride: Two Magical Pianos.” The debut of a new two piano team comprised of David Troy Francis and Daniel Weiser, featuring music of Gershwin, Rachmaninoff, Milhuad, and more:
Sunday, June 10 at 4:00 at Diana Wortham Theater in Asheville: Visit www.dwtheatre.com for tickets.
AmiciMusic presents “Soprano Sensation” with Maria Clark, soprano and Daniel Weiser, piano. Great songs from the classical and musical theater literature with a terrific Atlanta-based singer:
Friday, June 29 at 7:30PM at House Concert in Biltmore Forest
Saturday, June 30 at 7:30PM at White Horse in Black Mountain
Sunday, July 1 at 3:00 at First Baptist in Weaverville