A Master's Class: Wadsworth wows audience talking about his life in music
By ALEX MCRAE
It was a “Master” class in every sense of the word, taught by a master of music, charm and grace.
As Newnan famous son Charles Wadsworth went through his paces Friday afternoon at the Centre for the Performing and Visual Arts, students, teachers, former neighbors and total strangers eager to spend a few moments with the legendary giant of the music world sat spellbound as Wadsworth worked them like pieces of putty.
In recent years, Wadsworth has “sat in” and commented to students during the Newnan master classes conducted by visiting artists in town for the annual Wadsworth and Friends concerts. This year, Wadsworth personally conducted the master class.
Sitting at a small table on the front of the stage and sipping from a bottle of water, Wadsworth told the audience how music can reflect any emotion, and gave examples from his life. He described the sadness he felt at the passing of his first piano teacher, and the joy he felt after some wonderful performances.
“Music brings joy and peace when you have sadness,” he said, “and strength when you need it.”
Wadsworth discussed the “master class” concept and said “master” was a word rarely heard in music since “Master implies an impossibility, especially in music.”
He said musicians never really attain the status of “master” but spend their lives and careers “working toward goals they can’t achieve. But the happy struggle brings joy.”
He spoke warmly of his first teachers, beginning with Lucille Weddington, who taught Wadsworth in Newnan from the age of “8 or 9” until he reached age 12 and began going to Atlanta to take lessons from Hugh Hodgson, a giant of Georgia music for whom the University of Georgia School of Music is named.
Wadsworth started studying with Hodgson at age 12, taking lessons at Hodgson’s home on weekends, when Hodgson returned to Atlanta from his duties at the University of Georgia. Wadsworth said in addition to being “the greatest music teacher I ever had,” Hodgson also was a mentor in other areas, including romance.”
The audience roared as Wadsworth spoke about Hodgson’s gentle instruction in romantic affairs and then got an uproarious response when he said Hodsgon was fabulously wealthy, largely as a result of marrying two very rich women.
“A word of advice to you young gentlemen out there,” Wadsworth said with a twinkle in his eye. “Before you get serious, if possible, check out her bank account.”
Wadsworth went on to recount his schooling at the University of Georgia for two years and later at the Julliard School of Music in New York.
He said his first professional break came shortly after he left Julliard and accompanied a well-known singer at a major New York concert hall. New York music critic Virgil Thompson wrote a review that was lukewarm on the vocalist, but effusive in its praise of Wadsworth’s talent as an accompanist. Wadsworth said when the review was published, his phone started ringing with people requesting his services as an accompanist. It never stopped.
“I always remembered that my job was to make them sound as good as possible and not to be the main event,” Wadsworth said.
Throughout the remarks, the crowd laughed repeatedly. Wadsworth said laughter was one of the things that drew him to music. “I’ve made such wonderful friends and had so many good times,” he said. “I learned to accept the realities of life with a smile and a confidence that I was headed toward a beautiful life in music.”
The day also included performances by three local students eager to accept Wadsworth’s gentle advice and suggestions. All showed marked improvement after a dose of the Wadsworth magic.
The first student was bassoonist Shelby Jones. After she played parts of a selection, Wadsworth said, “You have a wonderful sound,” praised her technique and made some suggestions for adding expression to her playing.
Vocalist Cheyenne Eng was the next student. Wadsworth reminded her to project to the back row of the auditorium even on soft passages, encouraged her to sing with a bolder, louder sound and even advised her to keep her bangs out of her eyes while performing.
“We want to see both eyes,” Wadsworth said. “They’re very nice.”
He also advised Eng that if she were singing in a foreign language, as was the case, she needed to know what each word meant in order to express it properly to an audience.
The final student was flautist Michelle (Miyeo L) Choi. As she walked to the stage Wadsworth broke up the crowd when he good-naturedly said, “The Asians are going to take over.”
After hearing Choi play excerpts from a flute piece by Poulenc, Wadsworth offered some tips on technique, expression and timing. He also praised Choi for her excellent performance.
When the lessons were over Wadsworth closed by saying, “This is fun.”
No one present disagreed.
The master class was part of the weekend activities that will culminate tonight in the annual Wadsworth & Friends concert at Wadsworth Auditorium.
In recent years, Wadsworth & Friends Concert artists who’ve come to perform in Newnan have also conducted master classes for county school students. The artists have included pianists, violinists, cellists, flutists and vocalists — all meeting with students at the Centre for Performing & Visual Arts on Lower Fayetteville Road in an informal and instructive setting. Coordinated by Don Nixon, director at the Centre, the Newnan Rotary Club and local industry Cargill have sponsored those Master Classes for the last four years.
Wadsworth grew up in Newnan and quickly became an accomplished pianist. By age 13, he was the substitute pianist and organist at local churches. He went on to earn his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the famed Julliard School and moved to New York in 1952 to begin his professional career.
In New York, he founded the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in 1969, leading it as artistic director and pianist for 20 years and bringing chamber music the unprecedented popularity that it enjoys today. His innovative programming and the varied repertoire he unearthed have inspired a new generation of virtuoso musicians to perform chamber music, fostering the creation of chamber music festivals worldwide.
Beginning in 1977, Wadsworth served for decades as one of the artistic directors of the Spoleto USA Festival in Charleston, South Carolina, where he served as pianist and host of the daily chamber music concerts. Similar concerts were created in 1960 at the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy.
Wadsworth will celebrate his 84th birthday in several weeks and, since announcing his retirement in 2010, has limited his concert appearances.
General admission tickets for the 7:30 p.m. Wadsworth & Friends Concert Saturday evening at Wadsworth Auditorium in downtown Newnan are $20 and are available at Scott’s Book Store and at Let Them Eat Toffee on the Court Square, at Morgan’s Jewelers in Ashley Mall, or at the Bank of Coweta at Thomas Crossroads.