By Mike Holtzclaw
About a year ago, Kevin Cole sat at a piano for the first time since the eight-hour surgery that had removed a tumor from the right side of his brain. He needed to see if he could still play, and he started with a passage from “Rhapsody in Blue.”
Why a George Gershwin composition from 1924? Because Cole is widely recognized as the nation’s top performer of Gershwin’s work and of the classic American songbook from the 1920s and ’30s.
Soon after that test run, he gave his first post-surgery performance — a wildly ambitious program featuring all four of Gershwin’s major works for piano and symphony. The show took place exactly two months after the surgery, which caused him to lose all the hearing in his right ear.
“I figured we’d try it and see what happened,” Cole said. “I made it through all four works, plus two encores. Even without the surgery, that’s an amazing feat in my life to have been able to pull that off. It just reminded me that I’m very fortunate and blessed to be able to keep doing what I’ve always done.”
Cole will perform with the Virginia Symphony Orchestra at Chrysler Hall at the Ferguson Center in Newport News on Friday, doing a pops program focusing on Gershwin compositions like “Rhapsody in Blue” and “You Can’t Take That Away from Me” to “Summertime” and variations on “I Got Rhythm.”
After a performance last year, Chicago Tribune reviewer Howard Reich noted that the audience was nervously waiting to hear whether Cole could still handle the intricate arrangements.
“More specifically,” Reich wrote, “could the formidable pianist still conjure the sound of jazz-tinged, 1920s and ’30s American popular music as no other living pianist does? It didn’t take more than a few strains of his ‘Berlin Film Fantasy’ to realize that his pianism has sacrificed nothing to his medical travails. For the robustness of Cole’s sound, clarity of his touch and buoyancy of his approach to rhythm were thoroughly intact. … The world has not lost the singularity of his art.”
Two years ago Cole started noticing “little annoyances” involving the right side of his face — occasional numbness, a stopped-up ear, a loss of taste on that side of his tongue. In December 2017 an MRI revealed an acoustic neuroma — a benign but life-threatening tumor — that surgeons say had been growing for about 15 years.
The eight-hour surgery removed the tumor but disconnected the nerve that connected his right ear to his brain. He says he still has about 75 percent function in his left ear. He can use hearing aids in conversation, but has not figured out how to set their levels to accommodate the dynamic range of a concert performance.
His right ear faces the audience, so his ability to gauge the dynamics of a performance is greatly diminished. His left ear faces the orchestra and must also pick up on the sounds of the piano and of the audience.
“I used to hear in Technicolor, but now I hear in black-and-white,” he said. “It’s mono, because it’s only one ear, and I have to be careful not to compensate by playing louder due to how it sounds.
“It’s really been an epiphany for me about what I do to create music. (The hearing loss) changes how you hear the music, but it doesn’t change the emotional and heartfelt connection to the music. When I play the piano midsection of ‘Rhapsody in Blue,’ it felt the same. I didn’t hear it the same, but I felt it inside the same.”
Cole began playing piano before he started kindergarten, and on a visit to the library a few years later learned that Gershwin biographer Edward Jablonski shared his hometown of Bay City, Michigan.
He sought an audience with the author, and played for him at age 15.
“He listened to me play,” Cole recalls, “and he said to me, ‘Has anyone ever told you that when you play Gershwin, you sound like Gershwin?’”
Cole, now 59, has spent the rest of his life trying to live up to that compliment.
He has spent decades touring the country, often billed by symphony societies as “America’s pianist.” His signature is “Rhapsody in Blue,” either with full orchestration or in a lovely and difficult solo piano arrangement.
On Sunday at the Sandler Center in Virginia Beach, the Virginia Symphony will also perform Gershwin, but without Cole’s accompaniment. The program will feature “An American in Paris,” with a performance by the School of Richmond Ballet.
If you go…
“Gershwin’s Rhapsody and More,” The Virginia Symphony Orchestra featuring pianist Kevin Cole. 8 p.m. Friday at the Ferguson Center for the Arts in Newport News. $25-$100.
“An American in Paris,” The Virginia Symphony Orchestra with the School of Richmond Ballet, 3 p.m. at Sandler Center for the Performing Arts in Virginia Beach. $12-$22.
Info and tickets: 757-892-6366, virginiasymphony.org.
Mike Holtzclaw, 757-928-6479, firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter @mikeholtzclaw.