By the time long lines of frustrated devotees of George Winston got their tickets from bewildered ticket clerks and swarmed down the aisles, Winston's concert was 12 minutes late. But it suited his eccentricity. The entire evening seemed improvised. There were written programs, but they didn't tell you what was going to happen. Instead, Winston himself introduced each piece.
He pranced onto the stage in a long-sleeved cotton T-shirt, Levis and stocking feet in a throwback to his Montana boyhood. But the stocking feet soon justified themselves in Winston's incessantly bouncing left foot. If there had been a shoe on it, the noise would have destroyed the serene, evocative music for which he is famous.Still, no one in the audience seemed to miss the tux and tails. They loved all his music and hung on his every bland word. It was a very young audience, many of them probably pianists who aspire to be like Winston but whose teachers want them to be much more conventional.
The program began with "Colors," about autumn in an enchanted forest. To illustrate the visual image, Winston was heavy on the sustain pedal. With his left hand repeating the pattern, he kept time with his left foot. At the end he reached inside the piano to make the strings even higher until finally there was no sound but the tapping of his foot.
In "January Stars" from "Winter into Spring," Winston seemed more as if he were playing a harp, again reaching into the piano to make the strings sound as if they were being plucked. The image was of a clear winter sky with passing clouds and shooting stars ringing like bells.
"Stride" piano means the left hand "strides" between a bass note and a chord while the right hand plays the improvisation. This style evolved in the 1920s out of the ragtime style, and Fats Waller was one of the greatest stride pianists. In one memorable, fun piece, "Dog and Cat," Winston embraced "stride," with his left hand as the dog and his right hand as the cat.
In the second set, "The Holly and the Ivy," and "The Carol of the Bells" from the "December" album utilized the strong left hand throughout while the right hand danced over the keys. A medley of "When the Saints Go Marching In," an Orleans sound, and "Dance of Dream Man," from the "Twin Peaks" sound track, brought finger snapping from the audience, as requested by Winston - "on the second and fourth beat of the measure - if that helps." It didn't. The audience got weaker, but Winston did not.
The smash of the evening was the incredible dual harmonica improvisation of Eastern European music in which Winston kept two rhythms going at the same time, evoking the sound of a fiddle or an accordian. "Thanksgiving," the lead piece from the "December" album, was a special favorite of the audience.
Winston ended with "a new Montana winter piece," which he said had no title. All of his pieces had the essence of his recordings but were longer and more wandering. He explained his need to improvise by saying once he had made a record he had done that - and afterward had to do something else.
He can apparently improvise all he wants in Salt Lake City - to a standing ovation - except when he returns for his summer show he shouldn't be surprised if his audience is also in stocking feet.