Progressive rocker still exploring musical frontiers

URBANA – The All Music Blog says that throughout his long career, Keith Emerson has proven himself perhaps the greatest, most technically accomplished keyboardist in rock history.

That gives Emerson pause.

"Being of English modesty, that's arguable," he said during a telephone interview from Santa Monica, Calif., where he lives in addition to maintaining a home in Sussex, England.

"I'll certainly think about that one."

Emerson, a composer who played with The Nice in the '60s and then Emerson, Lake & Palmer before embarking on a solo career, will be in Urbana on Sunday evening to hear concert pianist Jeffery Biegel perform Emerson's "Piano Concerto No. 1" with the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra. Emerson will introduce the piece from the Foellinger Great Hall stage at Krannert Center.

So why doesn't Emerson perform it himself?

"He's an incredible piano player," Emerson said of Biegel. "It's always an honor when somebody of his stature decides he wants to put this in the orchestral repertoire."

There are other reasons Emerson won't be at the keyboard on Sunday night. He has been busy the last year making a new album, "Keith Emerson Band featuring Marc Bonilla."

Bonilla is a guitarist and vocalist who has collaborated with Emerson since the two first met in 1990.

Emerson also has been busy traveling back and forth across the Atlantic. In December, he performed in London with other Atlantic Records artists, among them Led Zeppelin, to honor the late Ahmet Ertegun. That show was to benefit the Ertegun Foundation, which provides scholarships to students in England, the United States and Ertegun's native Turkey.

"He was the last of the great record presidents," Emerson said. "He cared deeply for his artists. Sadly, the record industry is not quite the same anymore, but we all have to move on. It was a great honor to open the show, and I think we did a good job. We opened with what else but 'Fanfare for the Common Man,' Aaron Copland's piece."

Emerson adapted for the progressive-rock stage "Fanfare," which appeared on Emerson, Lake & Palmer's 1977 album "Works Volume I." An edited version released as a single that year became one of the band's biggest hits.

"I know that Aaron Copland for one admired my adaptation," Emerson said. "The BBC radio people in England interviewed him shortly before he passed (in 1990) and got his opinion, and it was very complimentary. As a result, you hear 'Fanfare' played at most sports events."

Despite the changes in the music industry, Emerson, now 63, said he remains encouraged by young music students and pianists who tell him they would never have known of another classical composer, Argentinian Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983) if not for Emerson's adaptation, titled "Toccata," of the fourth movement of Ginastera's first piano concerto. "Toccata" appears on Emerson, Lake & Palmer's popular album "Brain Salad Surgery."

As for his own Piano Concerto No. 1, Emerson said he never thought it would be performed again after he played it, the first time with Emerson, Lake & Palmer and a 90-piece orchestra in 1977 at Madison Square Garden in New York. They got a standing ovation. Emerson also played the piece that same year at the Montreal Olympic Stadium.

Finally, it got too expensive to have an orchestra travel with the band to perform the piece.

"The wonderful thing is I have free license to rock out my own classic," Emerson said. "I prefer to leave it to Jeffery to play the traditional version. I'm sure he will take advantage of it."

Emerson himself started playing piano when he was 7. His father played by ear, and he tried to copy him. When Emerson was 8, his family paid for piano lessons for Keith. "It was simply a teacher visiting me once a week for a half an hour, having me practice scales."

After people thought he was good enough, Emerson quit lessons and bought Walter Piston's guide to orchestration. He guesses he was around 21 at the time.

"I was rather pleased at my first attempt, which was with the '60s band I had, The Nice," Emerson remembered. "I wrote kind of a suite for group and orchestra, and I wrote it all in concert pitch, and of course, I had to have an orchestrator come and say, 'I'm sorry, but this trumpet player can't play this note that long.' Playing keyboards you can play notes forever. You have to bear in mind that a member of a woodwind or brass section has to take a breath."

Emerson soon learned the diplomatic issues relating to orchestration and how to write music that was easy for orchestra members to read. Over the decades, he has written a lot of music including scores for at least two movies.

He had reunited to play concerts at various times with his former band mates from Nice and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Emerson also wrote an autobiography, "Pictures of an Exhibitionist," released in 2004. The following year, Castle Records put out a two-disc compilation of his works, "Hammer It Out: The Anthology."

Emerson has his own favorites that he continues to play, including on his newest album, to be released in June. There also will be a DVD about the making of the record.

Featuring originals by Emerson and Bonilla, it encompasses all of the genres of rock, from early boogie-woogie to symphonic developments, Emerson said.

"It's full of the grandiose progressive-rock dimensions that combine with new production," he said. "So it's a continuation of what I was doing with ELP in the '70s, '80s and '90s. I'm very, very excited about it. I hope everyone else will be."

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