Friday, February 25, 2005

Piano playing comes with panache

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Express Staff Writer

Elena Baranova Watson practices for a free concert tonight in Hailey. Express photo by Dana DuGan

Third in a series of three

If a person is looking for inspiration when picking up a new instrument, there are countless choices. Nightclubs, open mic nights and concerts.

Musically, the Wood River Valley is full alive and humming. Among other tuneful offerings, there is a "From Russia to Idaho Classical to Bluegrass" concert tonight at the Community Campus theater in Hailey. The free concert is presented by the Music & Me Music Academy in Hailey and Dunkley Music in Twin Falls

Pianist Elena Baranova Watson is one of the featured musicians. A Ukraine native, Watson, 53, spent her entire life in pursuit of piano perfection. She was a special piano instructor and concertmaster at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Vladivostik. Under her tutelage, her students completed a seven-year course of piano playing. In fact, she went through the same process, beginning her training at age 6. Prior to moving to the Wood River Valley, she spent four years as a piano specialist at the Russian-Chinese Cultural Center, in Ji-Xi, where she ran the piano program and had 45 students of her own.

A widow, Watson moved here last year to be married to Patrick Watson, whom she met online. They live in Bellevue.

Last December over the holidays, Mitzi Mecham, the owner of Music & Me Music Academy, heard her playing piano on the stage at the Festival of Trees and was stunned. "I thought, 'Now that woman can play,'" she said with a laugh.

At the time, Watson was at loose ends. Somewhat friendless, she'd been playing piano for the seniors at the Blaine County Senior Connection. One reason a move to Idaho wasn't completely out of the realm of possibilities was her 28-year old son, Ilya, who lives in Boise, where he is in graduate school at Northwest Nazarene University. Non-existent when she moved, her English is steadily improving. She now instructs students at Music & Me in a style, one can only call, her own.

Unlike some piano teachers who hammer notes into their students, Watson stresses melody, rhythm and expression. Her body sways on the bench and her hands exaggerate points while demonstrating how a song should sound. A student can only look on in astonishment and try for an approximate imitation. The piano on which she teaches at Music & Me is a baby grand. And it sounds divine when she is at the helm.

Petite and lively, Watson speaks English in much the same way she teaches and plays. Though a bit off, her meaning is somehow understandable due to a singularly expressive manner.

"I miss my friends and my language. But I have no time to meet. Everybody so busy. I feel better, I understand English better," she said smiling.

"It's been nine months. I have four students now. One little boy, he loves his lessons." She comically imitated the boy with his hands and eyes peeled on the keys. "'What is this? How you do that?' he ask all the time. I like my job, it's mine. Now I have this studio, it's my life." She shrugged but her meaning is clear. Without the piano or students Watson is simply not whole.

She sees her son every couple of weeks, she said. "Before we..." She made her hands into fists and smacked them up to each other. It's a move any parent can understand. "Now much better, each have own life," she laughed.

Then she sat at the piano to give a preview of the pieces she'll play at the concert: Strauss, Tchiakovsky's "Sleeping Beauty," as well as "Two Guitars," a gypsy folk song on which she'll be accompanied by violinist Sue Mendolsohn. When she played Franz Liszt's "Liebestraume," her hands flew over the piano's keys like little birds.

Then she played a Russian waltz with a fixed smile to her face.

"It's little cute," she said. "I study music for seven years. For (final) exam at age 14, this is what I play. I remember it all my life. I fly with this waltz," she said, her hands lifting up and waving about. Flying.

The featured musicians in the concert tonight are Watson, Mendolsohn, pianist Janis Walton, bluegrass musicians Monique and Rustin Ruwe and Mecham. Dunkley has donated a Steinway grand piano for the event.

For more information on the free concert or on lessons, call 788-3348.

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