Catching up with Sheila Simpson

I had lunch at a lovely Turkish restaurant on the Upper East Side the other day with Sheila Simpson. I always describe her to friends as “my friend who’s a concert pianist,” hoping they’ll be as impressed as I always have been. Sheila and I have known each other since 1973, and share that special bond that New Yorkers have when we’re non-natives but know this is the only place for us to be. Sheila started life in Belzoni, Mississippi, where her mother ran the local dance school, and she was a child prodigy, playing her first solo piano recital at 11 and performing as a soloist with three different orchestras by age 15.  A graduate of the University of Alabama, she received her master’s degree in piano performance from the Manhattan School of Music, graduating with honors. It was sometime after that, during the period she worked as a rehearsal pianist with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, that we got to know each other. She was at that time studying with Arminda Canteros, a much-loved Argentinian piano teacher whose playing made tangos a permanent part of my music appreciation. One of Arminda’s concerts at Alice Tully Hall in the ’70s was one of the highlights of my life, and I’ll always thank her for turning me on to 20th century Spanish and Latin American music. I love it when Sheila plays anything by Ginastera.  

Over the years, Sheila has performed at Merkin Hall, in the Lincoln Center neighborhood, in 2001, and at Princeton Theological Seminary in 2004. Both recitals are available on CDs through Sheila’s website, SheilasPiano.com. She’s performed at the United Nations, and around the world.  In the past few years I’ve also heard her perform two recitals in the gallery at Tenri Cultural Institute on West 13th Street, presented by the Leschetizky Association, which was founded in 1942 by pupils of Theodor Leschetizky (1910-1915) to perpetuate his memory. He was one of the founders of the St. Peterburg Conservatory of Music, one of his greatest pupils was Paderewski, and one of his famous sayings was “No art without life, no life without art.” Sheila belongs to the Association, and passes along her own knowledge of being a virtuoso to her many students. A musical life is a rich one, and one that keeps on giving, generation after generation.

It was to deliver a few prints I’d made of the picture below, which I snapped during the last round of applause at last May’s recital at Tenri, that took me to the Upper East Side the other day.

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Sheila and I did studio portrait session last fall, in preparation for this year’s round of concerts. Here are some of the results.

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In October, Sheila played Saint-Saens’ 2nd Piano Concerto in a concert with the Pine Bluff (Arkansas) Symphony, and because most of her New York friends couldn’t attend, she invited us to either of two preparation runthroughs she scheduled in one of the rooms upstairs at Steinway Hall, on West 57th Street. A pianist friend of hers, Francisco Miranda, played a transcription of the orchestra’s part while Sheila played the piano solo she would perform a few days later. Three movements, each very different, going as she said in the introduction “from Bach to Offenbach” in style. Only one melody in the whole thing that I recognized, but enjoyable for this non-classical non-musician’s ear and interesting enough to hear again sometime.

Lighting in the room was difficult, with strong light reflected in from the street through a big window and the room otherwise lighted with harsh florescents in two colors beaming down from rows of old factory-like fixtures. But I got this shot of Sheila and Mr. Miranda after they entertained us.

I always feel very priviledged when I hear Sheila play because she really puts the music across, producing it with a directness and intimacy — and obvious dexterity and command, almost always playing even the most complicated pieces from memory — but with no “look at me” ego thing going on. Sheila simply shares her love of music and her gift for performing it, and every listener feels it and learns. One of the glorious pieces I’ve heard her play several times is an arrangement for solo piano of Elgar’s “Nimrod” from the Enigma Variations that her husband Tom adapted for her as a gift. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be one of Shelia’s piano pupils trying to learn to play and reflect her high standards. But of course not everything is as easy as taking a good picture of an attractive woman.

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