“My parents wanted me to start taking piano lessons, because everybody’s parents want their kids to take piano lessons,” says 15-year-old Christopher Tavernier of Hendersonville.
And that’s really where the familiar part of Tavernier’s story ends.
A rising high-school freshman, he has already won several major piano competitions and performed with the Tar River Philharmonic Orchestra, the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, and the Symphony Orchestra of Augusta. He’s been featured on WLOS, WCQS, and NPR.
Tavernier is courteous and extremely poised, manicured in look and manner. “When you’re younger,” he says without irony, “you have more energy — you just want to run around and not sit down and practice. But as I got older, 9, 10, I was able to appreciate it more and enjoyed it a lot.”
He began his studies with teacher Collette Levi at age 6. Thirty-minute lessons with Levi grew to hour-long lessons with Dr. John Cobb four years ago.
“Eventually I got used to that, because now we’re doing like four-hour lessons, and I enjoy them every time,” Tavernier says. “During the summer our schedule is a three-hour lesson in the morning. Then, in the afternoon and evening, I practice for five hours.”
Despite the long hours, though, the young musician doesn’t have a set practice regimen. “It varies based on what we worked on in the lesson,” he explains. “It could be a certain weak spot that I’m sort of running over and not playing precisely. For every single piece, there’s something that will get you. Usually it’s more than one thing. I spend as much time as I need to on them and make sure they’re solid.”
After the technical side of a piece is satisfactory, he works on putting his individual stamp on it — his style is assertive, dramatic. “It’s hard to be expressive and have your own interpretation of something that you’re maybe not sure of,” he notes. “As soon as the foundation is down, all of that becomes a lot easier.”
With hopes of being a touring concert pianist and dreams of some day playing Carnegie Hall, Tavernier is always building his repertoire. He says the most challenging piece he’s played by Franz Liszt is the Fourth Transcendental Etude, “Mazeppa.” He’s also working on Prokofiev’s 7th Sonata right now, which he calls “very difficult.”
Tavernier will occasionally step out of the classical realm — he enjoys performing George Winston’s “Thanksgiving.”
“I learned that when I was 9,” he says. “It’s such a nice piece, and it’s recognizable by a lot of people. I play it every year.”
In another mood, he might delve into the works of modern Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin. “It’s exploring a new area,” he muses. “It’s using a lot of harmony that most people wouldn’t have used, which is interesting.”
He credits his love of chess for giving him the drive to excel at piano. “The younger part of my childhood I played chess, and basically hated losing,” admits Tavernier, who sounds most like a teenager when he laughs. “So I have determined that anything I do, I’m going to do it the best I can, and basically not lose. To me, not learning something or not getting something the first time, I felt like I lost. I feel like I need to win, so I guess it’s self-motivation.”
Tavernier is preparing pieces for international competitions, submitting applications. “I definitely want to be a [career] concert pianist. I don’t know how long it’s going to take, but hopefully not too long,” he says.
Meanwhile, he’s looking forward to an upcoming concert with his teacher, Dr. Cobb, himself a concert pianist with a direct musical lineage to Liszt (Cobb’s teacher was Claudio Arrau, whose own teacher was Liszt’s pupil). “He’s just amazing. I don’t know how to put it. Everything I’ve learned from him — I don’t have words,” Tavernier says
Their show is a benefit for Mission Hospital Foundation’s “Ladies Night Out,” a joint program with the Buncombe County Health Department that makes mammograms accessible to women of all incomes. It’s billed as “a rare two-piano fantasy” and titled “A Night At The Opera.”
Tavernier and Cobb will interchange solo pieces by Liszt, “and then we’re playing a piece we’ve never played [for an audience] before,” he reveals: Liszt’s “Second Hungarian Rhapsody for Two Pianos.”
Referring to the selection as “two operatic paraphrases,” he adds, “We’ve been rehearsing it; we’re getting it down pretty good. It’s going to be great.”
The third of four siblings, ranging from age 29 to 9, Tavernier sees one of his biggest challenges as not pushing himself too hard. “If I’m getting stuck on something and doing it over and over again and nothing’s happening, I take a break and then get back to it, and it all comes together.
“It’s like when you’re staring at a crossword puzzle and can’t find the word. You take a break and come back to it, and then, there’s the word. ‘How did I miss it?’”
A Night at the Opera
Saturday, September 5, 7pm
Christopher Tavernier and Dr. John Cobb perform A Night At The Opera — A Rare Two-Piano Fantasy
Darcel Grimes of WLOS is the Emcee
A benefit for Mission Hospital Foundation’s “Ladies Night Out” Tickets are $9.50
Diana Wortham Theatre
2 South Pack Square, Asheville
See dwtheatre.com for details
on the night’s musical selection.