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John Musto: Mikey and Johnny in the Steinway basement

You hear about places like the Steinway basement. My 2006 chat with composer John Musto got me in. A magical place.

The Steinway basement is one of those only-in-New-York places, where great pianists - Steinway artists - come to practice, practice, practice a stone's throw from Carnegie Hall.

They don't just practice in these two huge nondescript rooms among dozens of 9-foot concert grand pianos, some covered by plastic tarps. They come to play, to test, to listen, to put pianos through their paces.

And when they find what they like, their instrument of choice, that particular Steinway is sent to the venue where the artist is to play.

On Monday, Steinway artist John Musto, who is Caramoor's composer-in-residence, and Michael Barrett, who is its chief executive, took to the Steinway basement to take Musto's latest composition for a spin - the Caramoor-commissioned Piano Concerto No. 1, which gets its world premiere Saturday night.

With rehearsal pianist Philip Fisher playing the orchestra parts on a piano next to Musto's, Barrett works through the three-movement score, stopping and starting, working on tempo and dynamics.

They begin with the propulsive and dark first movement. Well into it, Barrett, a conductor getting to know a new piece of music, slows the tempo from what Musto has written.

"I want to make a big moment there, if you'll allow it, Johnny," Barrett says.

Musto agrees.

Later, after trying it a bit at the new tempo, Musto pauses.

"Mikey, I like that idea," he says, "but maybe not so much. I don't want to put the brakes on this. It's really rolling."

It's the kind of easy give and take - Johnny and Mikey, old friends - that makes this rehearsal and Musto's tenure at Caramoor a relaxing exercise.

That's not to say Musto has been relaxing.

He has been working harder than a composer-in-residence has a right to - programming three chamber-music concerts and playing in each, delivering his piano concerto and working on a string quartet work for next season.

This comes in the same year that his Piano Concerto No. 2 had its premiere, at the Miller Theater at Columbia University in April.

Musto was at the piano for that performance, and he'll be at the piano on Saturday. This is a composer who walks the walk.

And the right people are taking notice.

Musto was a Pulitzer finalist in 1996 for his orchestra song cycle "Dove Sta Amore." His scores for television have won two Emmys. In March, The American Academy of Arts and Letters awarded him the Wladimir and Rhoda Lakond Award, "given to a mid-career composer of demonstrated talent," according to the citation.

Musto, 52, seems to be enjoying his Caramoor experience.

"It's my favorite thing that I've done since the last favorite thing I did - writing an opera for Wolf Trap," he says.

That was "Volpone," his first-ever opera in 2004 in Virginia, also under the baton of Michael Barrett. The Washington Post called it a masterpiece.

"Working with them was so wonderful and easy and it's the same way here," Musto says.

Saturday's world premiere is of a work begun in 1988 and assembled in 1996 as three movements. (That's why it is No. 1 in Musto's catalog even though it will be premiered three months after his second piano concerto.)

Having put it together in 1996, he put it in a drawer, only revisiting it on occasion when other compositions needed the boost of a "little melodic idea."

"Some things went into my piano trio, some things went into something else," he says.

Yes, at times, John Musto stripped his first piano concerto for parts.

But it worked both ways: A song he had written ended up, in another form, in the third movement of the first concerto, a perpetual-motion demonstration of Musto's piano prowess.

When he dusted off the concerto a couple of years ago in preparation for his Caramoor residency, he found it was more complicated than he had remembered.

Then he got to work.

"I looked for every opportunity to simplify and make it easier to play, to provide the least amount of stress in rehearsal and actually get it up and running," he says.

"You don't want the feeling which frequently you get, where you say, `Oh, if I just had one more rehearsal.' "

Still, there is precious little rehearsal time.

Besides this basement session, which was for the soloist and the conductor, there will be just three rehearsals with the 65-piece Orchestra of St. Luke's before Saturday's premiere.

The first movement, Musto says, is dark and lyrical, the second is a short "Mahlerian" ragtime and the third is jazzier perpetual-motion performance.

All this from a man who has never studied composition. Instead, he says, he's learned by playing. To play Beethoven, Musto says, you have to take his music apart and understand it.

"That's the real composition lesson," he has said. "When you play Bach, you're studying with Bach."

If Musto has learned by playing, he's also learned by listening, the jazz influence a direct result of being the son of a jazz guitarist.

"The jazz element, what really appeals to me - besides the energy of it which comes from the rhythm - is the intersection of jazz rhythms and spiky melodic ideas and counterpoint.

"Jazz counterpoint fascinates me," he adds. "I love that sound. You hear it in `West Side Story.' ... There's a forward motion to jazz counterpoint that is very energetic."

Lest his friend be pigeonholed as a composer with only one or two influences, Barrett is quick to point out that Musto is the sum of his far-flung experiences.

"People of our generation who are classically trained and who grew up in America have grown up with television and movies and popular culture and the radio and pop music," Barrett says. "We draw from everything."

"A lot of John's music has bits of Catholic liturgical music in it," Barrett says. "I'll say, `What's that?' and he'll say, `Oh, that's an old chant. Don't you know? That's from the fifth ordinary of the blah, blah, blah.' "

"And I say, ‘No, I don't know.' I hear that it's religious and really old.' But he has a source for it. And he'll say, ‘Oh, yeah. I went to Catholic school..."

Musto is laughing at this point, but he agrees.

"I think a lot of composers are like that now," Musto says. "Maybe composers have always been like that. Bach was like that; Mahler was like that," he says.

But Mahler's experiences were not Musto's.

That is clear when, during a break in the Steinway basement rehearsal, this hard-working and serious composer gets a devilish look on his face as he playfully plays the theme from the old "Batman" TV series.

Only in New York.

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