Pianist Stephen Prutsman to bring silent film scores, autism-friendly concert to St. Paul

Stephen Prutsman

An internationally acclaimed pianist/composer and one of the SPCO’s first artistic partners (2004-07), Stephen Prutsman remembers playing piano to silent films when he was seven or eight years old. “Our family had old Super 8 movies of Laurel and Hardy and Charlie Chaplin, and I messed around with them,” Prutsman said by phone from San Francisco earlier this week.

Starting in his mid-teens, he was house pianist at a Shakey’s Pizza Parlor, where he played ragtime music. “It paid $3.50 an hour, which was a lot for the time. Wearing a straw hat, white shirt, red bow tie and arm band, I got up at an old beat-up piano. Sometimes, when the crowd got unruly – after a football game, when folks had been drinking – I had to dodge pieces of thrown pizza.”

As a teen, Prutsman was a contestant on TV’s “The Gong Show.”

“I started off playing the ‘Moonlight Sonata’ very slowly, and they were ready to gong me, so I broke out into ‘Alley Cat’ and they put the mallets down. Then I jumped to ‘Maple Leaf Rag,’ playing faster than I could handle, and I won.”

Years later, having won even bigger awards (top medal in the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow, gold medal at the Queen Elisabeth of Belgium International Music Competition, an Avery Fischer Career Grant) and well into his multifaceted career, Prutsman was commissioned to write a new work for a film of his choosing, to be performed with the St. Lawrence String Quartet in an art deco movie house. He chose Buster Keaton’s “Sherlock Jr.,” a 45-minute 1924 comic masterpiece with fantastic (for the time) special effects. “A lot of the music in ‘Sherlock Jr.’ is ragtime,” Prutsman said.

And now you’ve followed the circuitous path that brings Prutsman back to St. Paul for two very different concerts.

On Tuesday at the Ordway Concert Hall, he’ll join the chamber group Accordo for an evening of music and silent film. The program includes “Sherlock Jr.” for piano and string quartet (he’ll be at the Steinway) and “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” for string quartet. The quartet for both will be Stephen Copes, Ruggero Allifranchini, Maiya Papach and Julie Albers. For each, Prutsman has written music he describes as “reflective in some way of the time the film was made, and the environment of the film itself.”

“The ‘Caligari,’ a horror film made in Germany [in 1920], is expressionist, an art film,” Prutsman said. “It was striving to do something new and different, intriguing and unsettling artistically.” So he wrote a 12-tone, dodecaphonic score … sort of.

“The basic rules of 12-tone are to use all 12 of the pitches in a chromatic scale before you repeat one of them,” Prutsman explained. “The idea was to obliterate tonality … With true 12-tone music, you have to listen to it 100 times before you start to hear it melodically. I didn’t want people to have to do that, so the score to ‘Caligari’ is not a true 12-tone piece.” He uses smaller fragments, harmonic hints and musical motifs. Don’t worry, just watch the film and see how Prutsman’s music fits and it.

As a comedy, “Sherlock Jr.” invited a different musical approach. “I used a language that would have been appropriate at that time,” Prutsman said, “with lots of jokes and gags, and punch points directly connected to the visuals.” There’s a dream scene with dreamy music, some aforementioned ragtime, stride piano, and nods to Duke Ellington. (Prutsman also plays jazz piano.) Some listeners have heard hints of Faure and Richard Strauss.

Here’s a brief trailer that will give you a taste of what to expect:

Accordo with guest Stephen Prutsman. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Ordway Concert Hall. FMI and tickets ($21-$36). Following the concert, everyone is invited to a reception with the musicians at Vieux Carré. Show your ticket stub for free entry.

A few days before, on Saturday morning, Prutsman will give a concert at the Landmark Center for children and young adults with autism and their families. Prutsman and his wife, Sigrid Van Bladel, are parents of a young teen with autism.

“We noticed that activities for families with kids on the spectrum are limited,” Prutsman said. “These are kids with nonvolitional behaviors – hand-flapping, super high anxieties, vocalizations. So you really can’t go to the movies. You certainly can’t pay $110 to hear the orchestra play a symphony; you’ll get kicked out. You can’t go anywhere neurotypicals have paid money to hear something without distraction. These kids of ours on the spectrum can be a distraction. So we decided to make our own events.”

In 2012, Prutsman and Van Bladel founded Autism Fun Bay Area, where activities include hikes, a summer camp, a swim program, jazz jams, beach outings and sensory-friendly concerts, like the one that will take place in St. Paul.

“It’s a chance for families to come with their kids,” Prutsman said. “All behaviors are welcome. If little Jimmy is jumping down in his seat or vocalizing, Mom doesn’t have to worry or get embarrassed. It’s all part of the event.

“The saddest thing about developmentally disabled kids is the family feels trapped. They can’t get out as a family. Having lived this journey for twelve years, that’s the most important thing for me.

“We try to engage the kids as much as possible with the instruments, music, and eye contact. I have them come up at the end and noodle with the keyboard while I play some pretty chords. Cool stuff happens. The kids don’t know me, they haven’t touched a piano, but they noodle on the keyboard. That’s engagement, something kids with autism have a really hard time with. That’s what I really love.”

Azure Family Concert for Autism Families: Stephen Prutsman. Saturday at 11 a.m. in the Weyerhaeuser Auditorium on the Landmark Center’s lower level. FMI, including a downloadable social story (a tool to help children with autism). Space is limited, so a reservation is required.

The picks

Ongoing at the Walker: 2016 Film Independent Spirit Awards Screenings. For Walker and IFP members only, the chance to see the nominated films in four categories – Best Feature, Best First Feature, Best Documentary and the John Cassavettes Award – for free. This year’s films include Charlie Kaufman’s “Anomalisa,” Todd Haynes’ “Carol,” Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog” and Marielle Heller’s “The Diary of a Teenage Girl.” Free tickets; first come, first served. FMI including screening schedule.

Courtesy of the Walker Art Center
Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s “Anomalisa,” nominated for Best Feature in the 2016 Film Independent Spirit Awards.

Opens today (Friday, Jan. 15) at Como Park Zoo: Dr. Entorno’s Palace of Exotic Wonders. A traveling exhibit of real live, bizarre and freakish insects and invertebrates from around the world, presented as an old-fashioned circus sideshow. Things like glow-in-the-dark scorpions, the cyanide-secreting Giant African Millipede, the Chilean Rose-Haired Tarantula and Giant Mealworms. And the (suddenly ordinary-sounding) Black Widow. Daily 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Ends April 17.

Dr. Entorno’s Palace of Exotic Wonders

Starts tonight (Friday, Jan. 15) at the Film Society’s St. Anthony Main Theatre: Wim Wenders Retrospective. Seven films showing in rotation, including “Paris, Texas,” the “Road Trilogy” (in chronological order), the rare director’s cut of “Until the End of the World,” “Buena Vista Social Club” and his latest, “Every Thing Will Be Fine.” FMI including schedule and tickets ($8.50; $10 for “Buena Vista Social Club”).

Starts Saturday at the Sabes JCC: Twin Cities Jewish Humor Festival. Nine nights of standup, stories, improv, art and laughter, featuring comedians from around the country including Mark Matusof, author Christopher Noxon and the “Not So Kosher” podcasters. At the Sabes JCC, the St. Paul JCC and Brave New Workshop. FMI and tickets (all-festival pass $54; prices vary for individual events). Ends Jan. 30.

Hot tickets

On sale today at 10 a.m.: Zakir Hussain at the Pantages on March 19. Hussain is to the tabla what Béla Fleck is to the banjo. Both are world-class wonders (actually, the two have performed together). A national treasure in India, Hussain has played with everyone from Mickey Hart to Yo Yo Ma. FMI and tickets ($32.50-$48.50).

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