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In the presence of genius

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By John Zirkle
Warren Miller Performing Arts Center

Imagine you are seated in an audience of 200 people on the top floor of an 11th century Abbey in a small concert hall with marble floors, fresco ceilings, and an 8-foot-by-11-inch polished Steinway D Grand Piano sitting on a small stage.

The windows are open and as the sun sets, you can see a storm brewing over the tiny town of Ochsenhausen, Germany, just two hours west of Munich by train. On the program this evening is a young Ukrainian pianist named Antonii Baryshevskyi, who has a peculiar shock of black wavy hair, a beard that comes up to his eye sockets, and an intriguing disposition that one typically associates with genius.

When he comes on stage, the first thing you notice are the two buttons undone at the top of his shirt, and his quirky – almost clumsy – bow before he sits down and adjusts the piano bench to the right height. He looks up to the ceiling, possibly gathering his thoughts for the program to come, and begins to play. Within the first few notes, it’s obvious you’re hearing a master at his craft; a fully realized artist.

After lilting his way through some impossibly difficult études, Baryshevskyi plays some music you aren’t familiar with. But by this point you’ve established a trusting relationship, and it’s OK if you don’t know exactly what’s going on. At intermission, the entire audience is lit up with energy, agreeing they’re in the presence of a real-life prodigy.

As you make your way back into the concert hall, the wind picks up outside, and a hush seeps throughout the crowd. The tension mounts as you prepare to experience Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” an 1874 tour-de-force inspired by the work of the French painter Viktor Hartmann.

Rich with images of gnomes, dancing chicks, oxen, and the Great Gate of Kiev, “Pictures at an Exhibition” is at once fun and accessible, but also as profound as any Beethoven Symphony. As the young pianist wields his way through the piece, he’s able to balance the maturity and skill of a serious artist with the need for lightness and play.

The concert nears its end, and you feel a sudden sadness, knowing that your relationship with this enchanting performer is almost over. You watch, enamored, as Baryshevskyi’s fingers effortlessly glide through the cadenzas in the final movement, and you could swear the keys are igniting into flames.

The final chord is struck and the remaining sounds soar over the crowd, lance the frescoes, and fall away into the distance of the storm clouds.

Silence. Nobody claps; you can’t believe it’s over. You just sit there, basking in something real, beautiful even, and you realize that your life has changed forever.

Antonii Baryshevskyi takes to the stage of the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center on Saturday, March 1 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available online at

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