Pianists and the power of "time-capsule" music


Like many professional pianists, I was privileged to have the opportunity to premier multiple new works, perform concerti with orchestras, make commercial recordings, and play some pretty flashy solo and ensemble repertoire over the course of my career. But for all the drama of fistfuls of notes and dazzling speed, nothing has been as appreciated as one piece in my permanent repertoire: John Kander’s New York, New York. The unofficial theme song of my father’s Brooklyn-Italian family, Frank Sinatra’s rendition of this tune closed every one of the required “play for the Rizzo relatives” performances of my youth, because no matter what I played, however impressive, when I finished I’d hear (in a Brooklyn-Italian accent), 

“That’s great sweetie. Can you play New York, New York?”

New York, New York got my conservative Seventh-day Adventist grandmother (who didn’t believe in dancing!) to her feet at her 90th birthday party to teach her grown kids how to do The Charleston. My beloved 92-year-old Aunt Fran always sang every word if it—even when dementia robbed her of many other memories.  New York, New York is the soundtrack of baseball wins in Yankee Stadium in New York. It elicits spontaneity, and is the only piece I’ve played as a solo pianist that prompted one woman to sing along, and (in another performance) urged another elderly woman out of her seat to dance in the aisle. I recorded a version of it for my first CD, Made in America, a project which I first created for my family, but became one of my most sold recordings. I’ve played it at my father’s retirement complex and my mother’s nursing home, and it’s a favorite of my octogenarian neighbors, Jan and Dean. With the death of my beautiful Aunt Fran a couple of months ago, my father is the only remaining member of the original Brooklyn-Italian family I knew growing up. But their stories live on—in the flavors of my grandmother’s recipes, in my aunt’s bracelet dangling from my left wrist, and in every note of New York, New York.  

Sometimes the music others most want us to play can be the most humble. These are the pieces that are worn smooth by years of performances and decades of memories. They’re the glue that connects us to each other and to our ancestors. Their external simplicity disguises the deep significance of sing-alongs around family pianos, shared smiles, and stories that are relived each time we play the music. It’s time-capsule music, made rich by history. And those moments when we play the familiar notes yet another time, we know the truth: this connection, this love, these threads to those we love, this is why we play. 

(Dedicated to the memory of Frances DeLillo, 1928- 2021)

Photo credit: Vanda Roudez