GATESVILLE — Thursday evening found concert pianist and Gatesville native Jeffrey Arnold reprising an epochal moment from his musical past.
“I was 8 years old, it was 1967, and the phone rang. The artist scheduled to perform for the Morris Federation concert was ill, so I dressed up in a striped seersucker suit with bow tie, marched down to the baptist church and played Mozart on their brand-new Steinway grand piano.”
The ladies in the audience, properly attired in hats and gloves, applauded the wunderkind, and presented him with an honorarium. “A check for $10 — my first professional fee. I thought I was rich.”
Fast-forward to last week, when Brazilian virtuoso Mario Barbosa, the headliner for Thursday’s final Festival Concert presented by the Jeffrey Arnold Foundation, was stricken with a viral infection. Hospitalized with a persistent 103-degree fever, a last-minute substitution was mandatory.
“Cancellation never entered my mind,” Arnold said in the sanctuary of the First United Methodist Church in Gatesville. With only 48 hours notice, he decided to perform a solo recital, and smiled as he insisted: “The show must go on.”
Thursday’s audience was immediately captivated by the ravishing, sumptuous sonorities Arnold coaxed forth on the Two Romances by Robert Schumann. The contrasts were startling between the twin compositions, with the tempestuous, roiling themes of the second complementing the placid serenity of the first.
Chopin’s Nocturne No. 2, well-known and much-beloved, demonstrated Arnold’s sure technique and intimate knowledge of the Romantic repertoire. His restrained use of rubato, playing freely in and out of tempo, produced exquisite effects. And the Three “Hungarian Dances” by Brahms were notable for compelling employment of dynamic and rhythmic shifts.
On the second dance, in D-flat, Arnold managed to fill the sanctuary with thundering chords, no small feat, considering the less than optimum-size piano nestled in the choir loft.
But the second half of the concert revealed Arnold’s significant other talent. Described in the program as “Four Hymn Transcriptions” by the artist, the familiar tunes were anything but the unimaginative, lead-sheet type of takedowns the title suggested. Instead, each of the venerable hymns was completely refashioned into an improvisatory, fantasia-like piece that throbbed with modern chords and harmonies.
Arnold’s orchestration of “Amazing Grace” was a veritable theme and variations, and performed by the artist with brilliant technique and vibrant emotion, it soared heavenward for a rapturous finale.
Recalling his early years, Arnold stressed the importance of music educators. “There were seven music teachers here in Gatesville — all conservatory trained. And today, we have to include the cultural arts — so children, budding talents, have something to look forward to.”