Charles Joseph Smith

My Yearlong Celebration of Franz Liszt

2011 marked the bicentennial of the birth of Franz Liszt, the 19th-century Hungarian composer who claimed to have invented the solo piano recital. Charles Joseph Smith, a Chicago-based classical pianist, shared with CAR how he paid homage to Liszt this year.

To celebrate the bicentennial of Franz Liszt's birth, I set some target
goals: to play as many Liszt pieces as possible in as many
public settings as possible, and also to pay homage to Liszt by doing
reinterpretations and re-workings of some of his famous and
not-so-famous works.

But before I say this, I should mention that I fell in love with Franz Liszt in the late 1980s when I heard "2nd Hungarian Rhapsody in C# Minor" in a famous Tom and Jerry cartoon. At the time, I was taking piano lessons with James Williams (who is now deceased), and he got me a version of that same rhapsody, arranged half a step lower to C minor and much less difficult. Later on, I found an LP of Philippe Entremont's classical piano album, The Best-Loved Piano Pieces, which included Liszt's "Liebesträume No. 3." This "love dream" piece exposed me to the musical romanticism of Liszt. Also in that decade, I watched several solo piano recitals by André Watts in what is now Symphony Center (formerly, Orchestra Hall). His inspirational rendition of Liszt's "Transcendental Etude in F Minor" showed me how Romantic pianists like Liszt took risks.

Then, as I started to build up my piano performance career, I went to the University of Illinois and fell further in love with Liszt's piano music during my graduate study. When it was time to do my doctoral dissertation in 2002 and two lecture-recitals on some of Liszt's operatic piano transcriptions, I really feel that I was on my way to being a Liszt scholar. For the icing, I ended up as a lifetime member of the American Liszt Society as soon as I graduated.

My postdoctoral piano career has involved other ways of appreciating Franz Liszt. A friend from France helped set up several of my recent overseas solo piano concerts, one of which happened in Ganges, France, in 2010. This friend (who shall remain nameless—or my concert pianist career will definitely be over!) underwrote the flight expenses on Air France and found a small theater called Theatre Albérède, where I made my debut doing a solo piano recital. The concert started with a pre-concert, quasi-comedic scene in which French elementary schoolchildren were supposed to answer questions regarding the most popular music currently playing on French radio, while I played the piano. Indirectly, this happening was similar to the Commedia dell'arte events and divertissements that were common in the 19th-century salon piano recitals of Franz Liszt's day.

I have gradually accomplished my goals of honoring Liszt. In January 2011, I performed in my inaugural alumnus piano recital and first all-Liszt solo piano recital at my second alma mater, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. That same month, I performed three of Liszt's transcriptions of Schubert's art songs at the Schubertiade (or "Schubert Party") at Chicago's Fine Arts Building. The next month, I was able to publicly debut my reinterpretation of the 2nd version of Liszt's "Transcendental Study No. 10 in F Minor" at the same building during the Emilio del Rosario memorial concert, curated by Chicago pianist and recording artist Svetlana Belsky. She invited me to perform at her other curated piano event—an all-Liszt group piano recital at the University of Chicago in May 2011, where I played the "Mephisto Waltz No. 1." By then, I felt I achieved a lot from celebrating the composer's birth.

But there came a new twist to my two abovementioned goals as soon as June and July arrived. The twist emerged when I saw a YouTube slide show of an arranged Franz Liszt work that I first heard when attending the 2006 International Keyboard Institute Festival in New York. The arrangement was the "Rakòczy March," also known as the "15th Hungarian Rhapsody in A Minor," which was, in turn, based on the "Hungarian March" from Hector Berlioz's opera, The Damnation of Faust. The arrangement was performed by a famous Russian pianist named Vladimir Horowitz, whom I would call a nearly modernized version of Franz Liszt (although his piano playing was permanently silenced by his death in 1989). The YouTube piano performance of this Horowitz arrangement was by another Russian pianist, Arcadi Volodos (who is not exactly a predecessor of Horowitz per se—although he will likely be, reaching star-performer status as piano recitalist like Lang Lang is right now). Thus, I was able to see a slide show of the piano score that is still played by the most recent concert pianists in modern solo piano recitals—especially in encores. I was hooked on that score and I was determined to put that piece in my piano repertory.

With my innate piano compositional skills, I was able to redo the score by hand and start practicing it. My goal now is to be the first African-American to perform this Liszt-inspired piece in a public concert.

Finally, I did more than 14 pianistic reinterpretations on Franz Liszt's works, especially in some of the "Paganini Etudes,"  in the fall of 2011. My target date was October 22—not only the actual day Liszt was born, but also my own birthdate.


Charles Joseph Smith was born and raised in Chicago, IL. He earned a BM in Piano in 1995 at Chicago Musical College of Roosevelt U. (now the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts), and MM and DMA degrees in Piano (in 1995 and in 2002) at the U. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Most recent pianistic accomplishments include a 2011 CD release of 13 piano arrangements of sacred Christmas carols, and his debut appearance at Make Music Chicago 2011. In the composition field, he had composed more than 500 compositions, with the most recent ones being reinterpretations on piano works of Chopin and Liszt. He also enjoys contemporary and avant-garde dancing.

Published by CAR_Laura on Thu, 12/15/2011 - 3:18pm
Updated on Tue, 01/03/2012 - 12:36pm