By Dave Ongie, Managing Editor
Those who filed into the Grand Hall inside ETSU’s Martin Center for the Arts this past Saturday were treated to a unique sound as 16 hands danced across the keyboards of four grand pianos to produce a sound that was as joyful as it was robust.
The Four Pianos in Praise benefit concert was held for a good cause. Proceeds benefited the Isaiah 117 House, an East Tennessee-based organization created by Ronda Paulson to serve foster children in our region.
The event was also significant because it continued a season of renewal for our community in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The audience was able to gather in person and allow the music to wash over them, and for many in attendance, it was the first time they had been back to such a concert in over two years.
The feeling of community was also treasured by the eight musicians on stage that brought the music to life. The Mila Vox group consists of pianists Anne Elliott, Carole Brown, Julie Cardwell, Rebekah Agin, Tony Martin, Susan Heaton, Annemarie Dugan, Maki Bayard and Erin Carder. The performance they gave last Saturday was originally supposed to take place in March of 2020, but the pandemic had other plans.
“When the pandemic did hit, the shocking news came to us when we were in a dress rehearsal for the concert,” said Elliott, the group’s musical director.
The group performed their Four Pianos in Praise concert for the first time in the fall of 2019 to mark Central Baptist Church’s 150th anniversary. The event was such a success that plans were made to reprise the concert to raise money for the Isaiah 117 House in March of 2020, but the show was canceled just two days before it was scheduled to be performed.
It is an exhilarating experience for pianists, because oftentimes pianists are soloist, and oftentimes we don’t have the opportunity to play with other pianists in an ensemble format. We absolutely love it.Anne Elliott
The pandemic forced everyone into isolation, including the musicians who had found a way to turn what is usually a solo pursuit into a group effort.
“It is an exhilarating experience for pianists, because oftentimes pianists are soloist, and oftentimes we don’t have the opportunity to play with other pianists in an ensemble format,” Elliott said. “We absolutely love it.
“It was a disappointment, but the hearts of the pianists in this group are amazing and resilient.”
The COVID-19 pandemic was cruel in several ways. It robbed many families of their loved ones and left others who survived their brush with the virus dealing with chronic health problems.
But even for those who either didn’t get the novel coronavirus or were fortunate enough to escape with mild symptoms, the pandemic robbed everyone of community and fellowship. Months went by for the pianists without the joy of playing together.
Christmas 2020 brought a reprieve in the form of a virtual concert with only one musician per piano and no audience to speak of, followed by another show at Christmas of 2021 with fewer restrictions.
Another byproduct of the pandemic was a sizeable migration of people throughout the country for various reasons, which has led to an influx of new neighbors into our region. Among them was Carole Brown, who was attending Central Baptist when she was asked if she’d like to take part in the Christmas concert in 2021.
Brown started piano lessons when she was 6 years old, but she eventually gave the instrument up and concentrated on mastering the organ. She had not played piano in 25 years when she was asked to play one or two pieces in the concert last Christmas, but she decided to take a leap of faith.
“With fear and trepidation, I agreed to do it, and it just opened a whole world to me,” Brown said.
A pandemic that isolated so many indirectly provided Brown with a community of musicians she now treasures. She recalls being hooked at the first rehearsal she attended when she heard the pianos blend together in harmony.
And so, last Saturday inside the Martin Center, the audience and the musicians were experiencing the same thing. Isolation gave way to community through music during this sweet spring of rebirth.
“I hadn’t ever experienced that before because I’d always been a solo instrument,” Brown said. “It was just like my life began when I got to Tennessee.”