When he is sad and moody because life seems too much, he thinks about the woman who made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1961 and yet did not have the right to vote in the United States. The woman who would have earned Mozart’s applause for her interpretation of Pamina in the Magic Flute, and yet was not broadcast on television in the South because she was of color. He thinks about Leontyne Price, about her courage, and his own, a lion’s courage, comes bounding back.
Mark Markham was born in Pensacola, Florida. With an anger that he has not yet conquered he remembers growing up in a racist environment. Tall, fair-haired, and with a light complexion he recalls: “When I was born, African Americans couldn’t vote, they had to stay in other hotels, use other bathrooms and sit at the back of the bus”. He remembers meeting the soprano from Mississippi in one of the first concerts that captured his attention, young pianist that he was. That day in 1980 was a turning point: he was hired and was immediately entranced by the profoundly feminine mystery of that marvelous voice, by the seductive power of sound. Leontyne Price.
For Mark Markham it all began when he was one and a half years old, to the beat of a 45 rpm by Elvis Presley on an old record player, it was a rock’n’roll beginning, but without drugs. Actually, he hates them. When he was four, he was always banging away on an electric keyboard, and when his eighth birthday came around, he very firmly said: “I want a piano and I want to take lessons”. His parents granted his wishes. As an adolescent, and after a series of rather mediocre teachers, he met the musician who changed his life by making him do a year of technique. Mark was playing his Steinway in New York when he crossed Central Park and went to meet the friend who had bought it. He was the only man who made an impact on Mark’s life as a musician, a life that was illuminated by women: after Leontyne Price came Ann Schein with whom he took lessons while he was studying at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. She agreed to teach him because she had heard him play in his hometown of Pensacola when he was sixteen, and she liked him. Over the course of a very intense decade she taught him style, real style, and continuity with tradition; then, one day she introduced him to another woman of destiny. A diva who would make his destiny.
A student and lifelong friend of Arthur Rubinstein who had invited her to his home in Switzerland after having heard her play Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, Ann Schein wrote to Jessye Norman about Mark. She praised his skill in a constant stream of letters. “Ann knows Jessye since Jessye was eighteen and they were both living in Washington. Jessye sang at Ann’s wedding in 1969. Ann told her about me and, without turning a hair, Jessye replied that the information seemed very appealing. Then, when the pianist Geoffrey Parsons died in 1995, Ann thought that I would be perfect for Jessye, also because she believed that I had the personality to deal with hear”. To deal with the superlative artist and the woman with a thunderous temper, the undisputed primadonna
Since then, Ms. Norman and Mr. Markham have given hundreds of concerts together: in the United States, in Europe and in the Middle East. Lieder, operatic arias, gospel, American composers. An ironclad partnership. The Remarkable Mark - as he was dubbed in a 1992 review celebrating his talent after a concert in New York - was introduced to the world of singers by the wife of the Pensacola pianist who rescued him mediocre teachers. But Mark doesn’t consider himself a “specialist” musician because he has three passions and will not sacrifice a single one: accompanist, soloist and vocal coach. He believes in the concept of the Renaissance artist who tested himself with the absolute.
“Music isn’t something to do, it’s a way of being. I am against dividing it up, against selling it off, against big names just for the purpose of making a billboard more tempting even if there isn’t any real empathy. I am against the agents who say: You already have a career as an accompanist, why should I help you play solo concerts?”.
Mark does not sit around waiting for agents, and he plays solo concerts just the same. After a performance with Jessye Norman in San Francisco on 31 July, he already has engagements in Florida, Baltimore and Detroit. In January he will be in Moscow with the Glinka Quartet. He loves Brahms, Ravel, Bartok, Debussy, Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev: “The great composers who were also great pianists”. Listing to Callas and Giulini in La Traviata. At the Teatro della Pergola, at the opening night performance of Verdi’s Macbeth of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, overwhelmed by our culture (“how can you be in a crisis, when you have all this??”), superbly elegant, wearing a grass green tie, lined in white, and clearly made in Italy, he said that he would like to play in Italy where he is unknown and therefore free. The program? Chopin, in honor of the Rubinstein-Schein line, the French Impressionists of playing like painting, and the Americans. Poulenc and Debussy, he loves Debussy’s end-of-life compositions written “when he was completely mad and said ‘I can write what I want, I am dying’”, along with Gershwin and Ellington. And Busoni, especially his transcription of Bach’s Chaconne for Violin, often played by Rubinstein, and pursuing another memory: Mieczyslaw Munz, who taught his teacher, Ann Schein, and at nineteen was Ferruccio Busoni’s assistant.
When Mark walks on stage he is happy: “You can say things with music that words can’t express. I know that I have something to say. You are your music and the best is when the listener forgets that he is not the performer. It’s like what happened to me at the theater here in Italy, with Maria Cassi and Alessandro Bergonzoni: I forgot that I’m a foreigner”. And he isn’t.