Piano recital brings Milbauer full circle


John Milbauer and Nicola Melville, former students in the School of Music some two decades ago, rehearse in preparation for their faculty recital to be presented Tuesday. Photo courtesy of Roger J. Coda.

Leah Rankin | Staff Writer

John Milbauer

John Milbauer

When pianist John Milbauer first came to the School of Music in 1989, he was on the verge of giving up music forever.

Playing the piano was a physical struggle. He was frustrated with the technical aspect of the piano, and he just didn’t have the right teacher — until Chautauqua changed all that.

Milbauer will play a recital at 4 p.m. Saturday in Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall and at this point in his career, he said there is nothing else he would rather do.

“When I first came here, I was fighting the piano,” Milbauer said. “I had no idea how to relate to the piano physically.”

Milbauer’s height caused many issues for him as a piano student, including tendonitis. None of his teachers seemed to find the right approach to correct the problem until Milbauer began studying with the School of Music’s piano chair, Rebecca Penneys.

“I can’t think of very many places where the faculty are willing to get their hands dirty,” Milbauer said.

Milbauer left Chautauqua with a renewed interest in music. He left Harvard University to pursue piano performance full time at the Eastman School of Music. He said this was an enormous gamble, but his experience at Chautauqua “changed the entire direction of (his) life.”

He returned to the School of Music four times as a student and now is here for his ninth year as part of the piano faculty.

“I look forward to meeting young musicians,” Milbauer said, “and not just teaching them but learning from them.”

The concert will feature Beethoven’s Sonata in E major, Op. 109, a piece Milbauer performed during his first year as a student in Chautauqua. Performing the piece almost 20 years later, he said he realized that as a student, his approach to the sonata was “naïve and surfacy.”

“Now I listen completely differently, and I value different things musically,” Milbauer said.

The recital also features Mozart’s Sonata in C major, K. 330 and a piece that Milbauer has been eager to perform for more than 20 years, Maurice Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin.” It is a suite the composer dedicated to the friends he lost in World War I.

“The Ravel suite is one of the most stirring statements of the human toll of war in any medium,” Milbauer said.

For Milbauer, who usually programs contemporary recitals, this program is relatively traditional.

Milbauer, who is a falcon handler in his spare time,  was recently named a Steinway Artist. He said that for him, being able to perform at Chautauqua — a festival that is one of only four Steinway music festivals in the country aside from Tanglewood, Aspen and Brevard — is a thrilling experience.

Donations for Milbauer’s recital will benefit the Chautauqua Women’s Club Scholarship Fund.