Leonore Overture

collects the music and arts criticism of Keith Powers

Stephen Prutsman: artist, performer, citizen

Stephen Prutsman at the keyboard with a friend at one of the Autism Fun Bay Concerts. 

Stephen Prutsman at the keyboard with a friend at one of the Autism Fun Bay Concerts. 

He could be the ultimate trivia stumper: what pianist won both the Tchaikovsky competition, and the “Gong Show”? 

But Stephen Prutsman’s varied career as a classical pianist, jazz innovator, arranger, composer and as an innovator for concerts reaching out to the autistic community overwhelms any trivial pursuits.

Yes he was a medalist at the Tchaikovsky (and other competitions), and he did indeed win the “Gong Show” as a honky-tonk pianist back in his college years. He’s played in lounges, and at Carnegie Hall. He’s composed for films, arranged more than forty works for the great Kronos Quartet, and gives piano recitals—like the one he has planned for this weekend at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival—that freely blend Bach’s music with Charlie Parker, Wagner, and others.

His music-making welcomes all genres, and he believes that his audiences should be just as diverse and welcome as well.

Prutsman founded and directs Autism Fun Bay Area, dedicated to creating engaging social opportunities for the autistic community. That includes dance-a-thons, and hiking. It includes concerts, parties and other social interaction. And this weekend, it includes an invitation for the autistic community to join Prutsman and others on Saturday morning for a special concert, one of four programs the pianist participates in during the second week of RCMF.

“I want to encourage all families, with kids of all functionalities, to come,” Prutsman says of his program. “If kids make noise, bring them. If they are super anxious, bring them. If they jump up and down, please bring them.

“We call them inclusion performances,” he says. “There is engagement, and participation, and laughter. There is a sense of celebration.
“These performances are for families with kids that are autistic, or have similar challenges,” says Prutsman, whose own son A.J. is autistic. “Vocalization, and physical displays—if families go to typical performances, they are asked to leave because of those things. This is undeserved.

“We want to develop kids who are able to engage with music—it helps the performers too. And we want parents to relax, to enjoy the music. If you have kids who are developmentally disabled, you are unlikely to get out. In a nutshell, we want to contribute to a sense of community.”

The programs are all different, and Prutsman experiments to find ideas that reach his audience.

“It varies, in terms of musical language,” he says. “In some cases the kids like it rambunctious, something that involves movement. In some cases, jazz. Choir singing is a big hit. Dance is huge. After seventeen years, I can sort of sense if our autistic kids are having a good time. 

“We want an environment where our kids are safe, and happy, and thriving. We measure quality by moments. If a mom and a twelve-year-old go on a hike for an hour, that’s high quality. We can’t do that 24/7, but if we can manufacture high-quality moments, then we’re better off. It just takes framing those moments.”

Prutsman and the Attacca Quartet will perform for the autistic community, and their families, on Saturday morning, June 23, in the Shalin Liu Performance Center. Participation has been coordinated through the Rockport Schools Student Services department, and the Northshore Education Consortium in Beverly. “They are called inclusion performances for a reason,” Prutsman says. “We want people in that community to befriend others, and become their buddies, or perhaps to volunteer to become a support person for these kids.”

This program is just one in a series of performances for the pianist at RCMF. On Thursday evening Prutsman is part of the first Classical Cabaret, a late-night program that follows the evening’s main-stage presentation. Friday evening he joins Attacca and violinist Danny Koo for a rich program that includes Steve Reich’s “Different Trains.” And Saturday evening he solos with his Bach and Forth program, making musical connections between Bach and composers of many different genres.

For complete program listings this weekend, and tickets, visit www.rockportmusic.org or call 978-546-7391.

Rockport Chamber Music Festival's opening weekend

Amit Peled performs Bach Cellos Suites. Casals listens