Today’s column deals with Masanobu Ikemiya, who will be closing out the 2018-19 “Concerts At Jewett” series with a performance at 2 p.m. Sunday, May 19. Ikemiya moved to Maine in 1972 and is not only a world-class pianist but also an artistic director and peace activist who resides with his wife, Tomoko, in Bar Harbor.  They are members of the Maine Organic Farmers & Gardeners Association, where they pursue a self-sustaining lifestyle trying to reduce the size of their carbon footprint. In a recent telephone interview from that Bar Harbor home, the famed pianist talked about his life and his music. When asked if he’d ever performed at Jewett Hall before, he responded.

Ikemiya: Many times, yes. Oh, by the way, did you receive my program?

Q: Yes, I did—thank you.
Ikemiya: Oh, good. Yes, I have performed there many times. Way back when it used to be Forum A — that was in the ’80s — and then on and off since then. It’s a lovely place.

Q: Yes, it is. Where am I calling, just out of curiosity?
Ikemiya: Oh, Bar Harbor.

Q: That’s a lovely place as well. Now, are you involved with any of the musical programs or instruction at UMA?
Ikemiya: Not really; it’s too far to do anything regularly, but whenever I get invited to play, I come and play.

Q: Do you do much performing around the state, nowadays?
Ikemiya: I used to do a lot. I lived in New York City for 20-some years and played at the UN and Carnegie Hall and at Lincoln Center. I also played in Washington, D.C., and all around the United States, and traveled around the world. I was the conductor of the New York Ragtime Orchestra and I took that orchestra all over the place — all around the states. It kept me busy, and then I founded the Arcady Music Festival in 1980 on Mount Desert Island. I did that for 20 years and it kept me busy as well. I retired from that and now what I do is mostly charity work playing weekly at various nursing homes in the area. That keeps me very busy. Sometimes, my wife comes along, and other times I just go by myself. I do this to thank the people of Maine for supporting me for all those years, and now I’m returning the favor.

Q: Speaking of your wife, is she a musician as well?
Ikemiya: (Chuckle) Well, she gives me support and she says she’s not a musician, because she can’t carry a tune, but she does play washboard, which is a fun thing for the old people to see.  It’s a mostly visual thing, as I play ragtime. I hope I can talk her into doing it at the Jewett Hall show. She doesn’t do it most of the time at formal performances like this, but hopefully, I can talk her into it and make it fun for everybody.

Q: One thing that I find fascinating is the fact that you play classical music and ragtime; to me that’s a strange juxtaposition of genres. How did you come into playing ragtime?
Ikemiya: My wife and I, when we were living in Manhattan in New York City, we used to volunteer at Mother Teresa’s soup kitchen at the homeless shelter in Harlem. When we were done serving, we’d walk around and hear this marvelous gospel music coming from the black churches and we ended up attending them. I made friends with some of the black musicians and they sort of got me into this wonderful African-American music, so that’s how I got into ragtime. Also, a good friend of me you might know, Glenn Jenks?

Q: Oh, yes, I’m very familiar with him.
Ikemiya: He and I became really close friends through ragtime. He invited me to a festival back in ’84 or ’85 and I became completely intoxicated by that wonderful, joyous music. Glenn and I both are into classic ragtime like Scott Joplin, and Joplin was a trained classical musician, and Glenn and I both went to music school with training in classical music styles. Scott Joplin wanted to raise ragtime to classical music levels, sort of like Chopin wrote mazurkas, which are peasant dances, into a beautiful higher artistic form. Somehow Joplin was able to do that and have his work performed in concert halls, not just clubs and brothels, and he succeeded because many fine pianists will sometimes play Scott Joplin’s works as part of their concert performances.

Q: Now, with classical music there’s a structure that has the performer following specific notes. Is ragtime just as rigid a discipline?
Ikemiya: Most ragtime performers will tell you that nobody plays it the way it’s written. We all add our own flavor and make up things. That’s why my rendition of “The Entertainer” is different. It makes it fun, you know? You never know that’s going to happen — I don’t even know (chuckle) — we live for the moment, the excitement that ragtime brings. Classical music is all stiff. You play exactly the way, say, Mozart wrote it — you don’t add anything. With ragtime you can.

Q: I noticed that the first part of your program, before the intermission, is classical and after the break, it’s all ragtime.
Ikemiya: Yes, the first half is classical and very serious and the second half is just all fun. Everybody can clap hands and sing along or anything goes. So you can enjoy two different aspects or styles of music.

Q: Is there anything, sir, that you’d like to get across to the folks reading this article?
Ikemiya: Oh, well I would like to have people really enjoy piano concert music. Piano music is not often heard, most of the music nowadays is amplified so acoustic, quiet piano is kind of hard to find. So I hope lots of people show up and enjoy the music — it’ll be fun for everybody, fun for the family, too, because there will be lots of sing-alongs and clapping hands — audience involvement — especially in the second half: the ragtime.

Lucky Clark has spent 50 years writing about good music and the people who make it. He can be reached at [email protected] if you have any questions, comments or suggestions.

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