When the New York Piano Society holds its sixth annual benefit concert at the stately, 268-seat Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, composers on the program, including Mozart and Chopin, will need little introduction. The performers? A slightly different story.
Elena Leonova, founder and artistic director of the New York Piano Society, started the non-profit organization in 2005 with the mission of discovering and developing talented pianists whose primary professions or fields of study aren’t in classical music.
“There was no real outlet for people to continue performing after choosing other careers,” said Leonova, whose own distinguished playing career started in her native Russia, where she attended the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory. Since moving to the states, she’s performed at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, as well as venues in Los Angeles and Rome, and also teaches music.
“We want to reach out to communities who otherwise are not exposed to classical music,” she said. “We want to continue to bring an interest to classical music by presenting performers who are part of them.”
Among the eight society members performing in the benefit concert is Sergeant Chris KaKit Yip, 35, a member of the New York City Police Department for more than a decade. He got his first keyboard about 12 years ago, and only started taking lessons in 2005.
“To play piano as a child, you need parents to pay for lessons,” said Yip. “My parents couldn’t afford it, but once I started making my own money, I bought the keyboard and took it from there.”
Following one of Yip’s recitals in 2008, Leonova pursued him, calling several precincts in order to track him down, he said.
Yip has played the Carnegie Hall benefit show every year since 2010. It’s an honor to perform in the concert every year, he said, but also “terrifying and nerve wracking.” Yip also performs yearly benefit recitals of his own. Three weeks ago, Yip and Michael Brenner, an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn, dubbed themselves “Law & Order” and performed a duel piano concert benefiting the Brooklyn Music School in Fort Greene, where Yip took his first lessons. Last year’s beneficiary was the Soho animal shelter Animal Haven.
Dr. Len Horovitz, a lung specialist who also treats Broadway and Metropolitan Opera vocalists, was born with two thumbs on his right hand. At his birth, Horovitz’s doctor jokingly told his mother that he wouldn’t be able to play piano. At two months old, Horovitz had the extra thumb removed, and endured seven additional surgeries on his remaining thumb. Contrary to his doctor’s prediction, Horovitz began playing piano at six years old and started performing public recitals by age ten. He has been playing in the New York Piano Society benefit shows since their inception.
Although a passionate musician, Horovitz always wanted to go into medicine. He sees similarities between playing the piano and being a doctor as both require discipline, manual dexterity, sensitivity and thousands of hours of study.
“It was the doctors who allowed me to play, so in some way, my debt was to medicine,” said Horovitz, who will perform a solo of Chopin’s “Barcarolle” during the upcoming concert.
New York Piano Society has an online application and in-person audition process, and holds monthly gatherings at the Kaufman Music Center on W. 67th Street. At these gatherings, auditions take place and members practice for the eight or nine yearly concerts, which are typically free or have a suggested donation. Venues have included the New York Public Library for Performing Arts at Lincoln Center and the Baruch Performance Arts Center on Lexington Avenue, between E. 24th and E. 25th Streets.
Leonova notes that members of the society travel from as far away as Texas, California, and in one case Düsseldorf, Germany to perform, and are often joined on stage by professional violinists, cellists and vocalists.
“We want our concerts to reach an even larger audience and continue to present the finest distinguished concert musicians sharing stage with our members,” Leonova said.