Synergistic fusion of music, art and poetry debuts with Oracle Piano Society

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Evaline Auerbach and Dr. Steven Cook. (Submitted photo)

By Evaline Jones Auerbach

Special to the Miner

Oracle Piano Society truly “showed its stuff” with a remarkable performance of a remarkable fusion stage event on Nov. 30 at the Desert View Performing Arts Center, SaddleBrooke Two.

Turn-of-the-century Oracle residents would have been as proud as current residents – who were and are here for the informality and friendship as well as the culture of the place. They would be and are proud of the new entity, Oracle Piano Society and its debut performance for the society – which was also the debut for the musical, artistic, poetry-laden play itself “Picture Rachmaninoff”.

The play, set in the drawing room of a fictional art collector-pianist who has accumulated each of the nine paintings which inspired Rachmaninoff to compose his “Etudes Tableaux, Op. 39,” is a monologue by Dr. Stephen Cook, sole actor and pianist.

Although Cook had presented the program of paintings and music before, the presentation as a stage play made this performance a debut. Written by Paul Harvey, Jr., the son of the famous radio broadcaster, the story pulled together all the elements of live performance and paintings onstage, as well as screenings of the actual paintings and voice-over by Harvey himself, with his paraphrases of Russian poems. Harvey had been quite impressed by a performance at Arizona State University in Tempe where Cook, presented the art-poem-music selections. Harvey wrote the play, the story that held the individual triads together, and paraphrased the poetry to fit the audience and retain each poem’s essence.

The resulting work came alive that night: a performance – a pure synergistic artistic experience – we were lucky enough to see and hear, we current residents of Oracle and SaddleBrooke, along with interested friends, and lots of students, some of whom had participated by painting the props.

The on-stage paintings which the “art-collector” picked up and showed us had been reproduced on canvas (in one case, in a book) by Stacy Marko and her advanced art students at Desert Vista High School in Phoenix (and had been on display at the Patio Cafe in Oracle for two weeks before the performance).

To meld each art piece with its “Etudes Tableaux” (picture study), the large on-stage screen showed parts of the actual painting and then zoomed out gradually while the reproduction sat on an easel in front of the screen for comparison. Meanwhile, Paul Harvey’s reading of the attendant poem fitted both the music and the visuals perfectly. One would say that this truly was the art and poetry that Rachmaninoff had meant to be connected to each. It was easy to believe the art collector (Cook) when he told us that he had discovered a diary in which Rachmaninoff explained which works of art had inspired the pictures he painted.

The Etudes themselves ranged from a demon showing itself, to a fairy tale, to creation from chaos, and many other themes.

For the Demon, Mikhail Vrubel’s The Demon Downcast provided the on-screen visual, with Mikhail Yuryevich Lermanov’s “The Demon” read by Harvey, accompanying the Etude No. 1 in C minor: Allegro agitato played masterfully by Cook. Around this performance the story developed that this “art collector” had acquired all the paintings mentioned in the diary and intended to sell them for a fortune. We, the audience, were his co-conspirators in this project.

During the showing of other paintings, one in particular appealed to young and old – based on a fairy tale. The painting by Wladislaw Wankie Alone in the Park presented a person dressed in red in the midst of a nearly colorless winter park. With the poem “Wolves” by Tolstoy, the performance of the Opus 39, no. 6 in A minor seemed to be a perfect depiction of “Little Red Riding Hood.” However well the pieces fit, we are soon reminded that the coordination of art/music/poetry is that of Steven Cook himself. As the art collector in the play, he gradually comes around to telling us, prompted by an on-stage phone call, that the diary was not real. So his commercial project falls apart.

However, even though the art collector blames us, his co-conspirators, for sabotaging his scheme, the artistic project definitely holds together — never more so than in the depiction of Creation out of Chaos, a metaphor for the whole artistic experience opening up on stage. Ivan Aivazovsky’s Chaos: Creation of the World is matched with, not a Russian poet this time, but the Bible’s Genesis 1:2 for the presentation of Etude-Tableau No. 5 in E-flat minor: Appassionato.

By the time Cook is finished with the whole program of nine etudes, nine paintings and nine literary selections, we believe, not so much that he has found a secret diary, but that he has some magical inspiration to have fitted all these pieces together so well – and played everything, including the stage persona, so magnificently.

Oracle Piano Society

How did Oracle get so lucky to have a piano society at all, and especially one as sophisticated as this? It may become clear when we tell you that Founder and Artistic Director Stephen Cook is married to Oraclean Rachel Opinsky’s daughter. And that Rachel’s mother was Sally Fender, musical aficionado to whom the concert was dedicated: the “Sally Fender Memorial Concert”.

Of course, Rachel had some great help in Oracle. The board is chaired by retired Psychologist and Cellist, Dr. Elizabeth LaFarge with Architect and Soprano, Mary Huebner, Voice and Piano Instructor and Artist, Elaine Helzer and retired Educator and Watercolorist, Opinsky.

The Artist Advisory Committee is Robert Hamilton, Chair – ASU; Paul Harvey, Jr. – Radio Hall of Fame; Dr. James DeMars – ASU; Eteri Andjaparidze – New York University; Alexander Korsantia – New England Conservatory; Phillip Kawin – Manhattan School of Music; Dr. John Milbauer – University of Arizona.

Sponsors and partners are: Ravenscroft Pianos, Friends of Tempe Center for the Arts, Oracle Fire Department, Arizona State Parks, Cherry Valley Ranch, Triangle L Ranch, El Rancho Robles, Oracle Women’s Network, the Oracle Patio Café and Oracle Artists, Diana Creighton and Karen Medley.

The funds raised by this performance and the others in the series will establish a “permanent presence in the beautiful community of Oracle featuring dynamic and innovative performance events of the highest caliber including an annual music festival camp, public classes presented by our guest artists, and educational opportunities for local schools.” The Oracle Piano Society is a 501(c)3 organization: to find out how you can help, visit or

Future Events

Upcoming Performances, all at 7:30 p.m. are:

• Jan. 4, 2014 – The same program “Picture Rachmaninoff” at the Tempe Center for the Arts.

Three more at the Desert View Performing Arts Center in SaddleBrooke Two:

• April 19, 2014 – Robert Hamilton, (Director of the first program)

• Oct. 18, 2014 – Dr. James DeMars

• Nov. 22, 2014 – Eteri Andjaparidze

See the websites listed above for more information.

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The Board of Directors of the Oracle Piano Society are, from left: Elaine Helzer, Dr. Liz LaFarge, Rachel Opinsky and Mary Huebner. (Submitted photo)

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