A personal journey from Bugs Bunny to Great Gorge

| 21 Feb 2012 | 10:46

    vernon-Bugs Bunny was my first music teacher, and a fine one. Just as I will always hear the story of Jesus's birth told in Linus Van Pelt's voice, I will always picture Bugs Bunny playing the piano when I hear Chopin. He played it well, as I recall. I'm grateful to that rabbit for introducing me not only to Chopin, who remains one of my favorites, but also to the works of Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and others. These masterpieces were as important to those animated classics as the characters whose actions were choreographed around them, and I was inspired to dig into my parents' classical albums before I was old enough to use the turntable. By age four I'd fake-ballet danced to the Nutcracker Suite n year round n often enough to have memorized it, and decided that I must play the violin. I'd never seen a violin or been to a concert, but I knew n the musical seed was planted. Planting seeds is what Gail Niwa - pianist, founder, and artistic director of the Chamber Music at Great Gorge series - had in mind when she launched her world-class endeavor right here in Sussex County in 1999. "I wanted to make this music accessible to people who normally would not go to a classical performance," said Niwa, who has divided her time between homes in Vernon and Manhattan since 1997. People are often afraid of or intimidated by classical music, but as Bugs and his friends proved, it's really kid stuff at heart -- music to dance, tiptoe, hunt wabbits, or simply listen to and enjoy on a Friday evening. Friday, June 25, 8:00 p.m. at St. Francis de Sales church on Rt. 517 in Vernon, for example. Chamber Music at Great Gorge is presenting its Fifth Anniversary Concert, and Niwa hopes to continue planting seeds of her own. Chamber Music at Great Gorge is no secret among local musicians and music lovers — you won't hear a better performance anywhere near here anytime soon — but Gail's focus isn't on her fans. She said she created CMGG to reach people who think classical music is for stuffy intellectuals. "My hope would be that someone who might come to the concert saying, ‘You know, I didn't think I'd like it,' would leave wanting to seek out more music," she said. Niwa, who made her orchestral debut on piano at age eight with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, strives to "bring the real thing" to her Sussex County neighbors. She and her group succeed by any standards, and Gail continues to gather internationally renowned performers to present exceptional concerts. She will be joined by her brother, David Niwa, on violin, violist Che-Yen (Brian) Chen, and cellist Michelle Djokic for the June concert. Gail varies the ensemble size, performers, and music styles with each concert to broaden the listeners' experience. "I try to select music that's accessible, challenging, uplifting, poignant, and has a variety of instrumentation," she said. The group's October 2003 concert featured vocal works sung by soprano Agatha Carubia, and a piano trio and string quartettsatz by Schubert. Their June 25th concert will include two piano quartets: Brahms's Opus 25 in g minor, and Turina's Opus 67 in a minor; and Chopin's Polonaise Brilliante for cello and piano, with the sublimely expressive Djokic on cello. Those musical seeds of my youth took root, and I pursued that violin dream. I've since performed in and attended so many concerts that they don't often thrill me, and, quite honestly, can become rather routine. Chamber Music at Great Gorge thrilled me. Gail Niwa, an International Chopin Competition prizewinner, will perform Chopin's solo piano Opus 44 Polonaise in f# minor on June 25. You just might recognize it n and if you thought Bugs was good, wait till you hear Gail. I have goose bumps already.