Essex Winter Season kicks off Jan. 12

Mihae Lee, pianist and artistic director of the Essex Winter Series.

You know the old saying about good things coming in threes; just ask Mihae Lee, a renowned concert pianist, a grandmother and an enthusiastic New York Yankees fan.

Her first grandson has just been born; the Yankees signed ex-Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury; and the Essex Winter Series, of which she is artistic director, is about to begin its 36th season.

The first concert on Jan. 12 will feature Lee and pianist Randall Hodgkinson in a four-hands duo playing Debussy's "La Mer," Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" and George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue."

Though the pieces were written for full orchestra, Lee said that composers often began a work with a piano sketch. Stravinsky performed a four-hand piano version of "Rite of Spring" at a Paris salon before the orchestral work debuted. His piano partner was Debussy, who sight-read the notoriously difficult music.

Hodgkinson and Lee are the resident pianists for the Boston Chamber Music Society and play together regularly. Lee said that playing four hands on one piano demanded certain adjustments. Dual pianists often need to be conscious of each other's fingering, lest their hands collide.

"You are always protecting your own real estate," Lee explains. Still, the synergy created by two pianists on one keyboard produces a very special musical experience for Lee. "It is like being one person with four hands," she says.

Playing with a male partner removes one of Lee's concerns: with two women playing four-hand piano, the artists always coordinate the colors of their dresses.

"It's so much easier with a man," she says.

A resident of Deep River, Lee said that some people, who know her only as a concert artist, are surprised to encounter her in the ordinary course of daily life. In the grocery store recently, somebody who had seen her only on stage, stopped, looked and said, "Omigosh, I've never seen you with glasses."

The EWS 2014 program includes a solo guitar performance by Jason Vieaux; an all Bach performance scheduled for Palm Sunday; the annual jazz recital by Mystic's Jeff Barnhart and his Hot Rhythm band; and the Fenton Brown Emerging artist concert featuring French hornist Leelanee Sterrett and the New Haven Symphony Orchestra under the direction of William Boughton. This year's entire season is dedicated to Brown, one of the founders of the series, who died last August.

A grant to the New Haven Symphony from the Community Foundation of New Haven emphasizing outreach activities is making the group's participation in the emerging artist concert possible.

"We weren't able to afford them, but when they got the grant, we could do it," Lee says, adding that bringing the New Haven Symphony to the Essex Winter Series had been something Brown had been eager to do.

She noted that emerging artist performers have gone from careers of promise to careers of accomplishments, citing flautist Yoobin Son, who played at a benefit concert. She is now a member of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, as is this year's emerging artist soloist, Leelanee Sterrett

Lee first heard guitarist Jason Vieaux some 15 years ago as a young performer and tagged him as somebody to watch. "I knew he was a rising star," she says.

Lee admits there were a few questions from EWS loyalists about the wide appeal of a solo guitar recital but she reassured them that both Vieaux's reputation and his artistry would carry the day. For her, guitar music has special qualities.

"It cleanses the mind. I listen to it when I want to relax," she says.

The Bach concert on Palm Sunday will highlight some of Bach's best-known compositions, including Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, with an assemblage of virtuosi on flute, violin and harpsichord, as well as a soprano soloist. Harpsichordist Linda Skernick is a Killingworth resident.

Lee put the group together for this concert.

"It's taken more time to get this together than any of the others," she says, explaining she had a logistics problem deciding where and when the performers, from various East Coast cities, would get together for rehearsals. The payoff, she promised, would be worth the effort.

"It's Bach's greatest hits," Lee says.

Last year, Stu Ingersoll, long the organizer of the EWS jazz concert, retired from the group's board, and Barnhart has taken over from him. This year's concert features Barnhart and his band playing the music of a jazz immortal, Fats Waller.

In setting up the season's program, Lee said that she aims for a diverse group of programs and something more.

"I want them to be eye popping; there are many concert series in this area so I want these programs to be unique," she says.

For Lee, the EWS sees her shift from her usual role of concert artist, who arrives to perform when all the details are arranged, to concert organizer, overseeing all aspects of the performance from contracting performers to advertising to seeing the music stands are in place.

"I always tell people that the Essex Winter Series has really changed my life," she says. She credits the EWS board for their ongoing assistance. "Thank goodness we have a great board," she adds.

At the moment, Lee's schedule is particularly full as she juggles finding time to visit her new grandson with concert commitments and the responsibilities of EWS. Getting in practice time for two recent performances in Boston has meant giving up something else: rest.

While Lee was in Boston for the concerts, she got a text message from her husband, French hornist William Purvis, with the news that the Yankees had signed speedy Jacoby Ellsbury, formerly the Red Sox center fielder, to a seven-year, $153 million contract. She was elated.

"I've been saying for years that we needed to find a way to get Ellsbury. I love this guy," she says. "Of course we paid too much for him, but that's what the Yankees do."

Editor's note: This version of the story corrects an error in the print edition, in which Ravel was listed as the composer of "Le Mer."

Jeff Barnhart of Mystic performs with his band in the Essex Winter Series on March 2.
Jeff Barnhart of Mystic performs with his band in the Essex Winter Series on March 2.
Guitarist Jason Vieaux
Guitarist Jason Vieaux

2014 ESSEX WINTER SERIES

Jan. 12: Mihae Lee and Randall Hodgkinson Duo

Feb. 9: Jason Vieaux, guitar

March 2: Jeff Barnhart and his Hot Rhythm play Fats Waller

March 30: New Haven Symphony with Leelanee Sterrett, French horn soloist

April 13: Palm Sunday all-Bach Concert

All concerts take place at Valley Regional High School at 3 p.m. For information and tickets, visit www.
essexwinterseries.com or call (860) 272-4572.

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