When Elissa Bluth travels – and she travels often – she doesn’t research a destination’s great restaurants or posh hotels or five-star museums.
Instead, she tracks down the nearest available piano.
“I prostitute myself,” says the effervescent New Orleanian with a laugh. For her, finding an accessible set of ivories for her daily piano practice is an essential part of trip planning.
She’s “borrowed” pianos in churches, synagogues, hotel lounges and her grandson’s nursery school. In Atlanta, she was given permission to practice in a local temple, which turned out to be the one in the movie “Driving Miss Daisy.”
Florida at a Ritz-Carlton, she was told she could play the hotel piano only before 7 a.m., so she rose every morning at 4 to get in a few hours of practice. At another hotel in Aspen, the only piano on the premises was located in the presidential suite – where she was allowed to play until paying guests arrived.
I met Bluth recently in search of information about the International New Orleans Piano Competition, under way today through Sunday at Roussel Hall at Loyola University. You will find her – and her fellow classical music aficionados — at the event’s performances, master classes and workshops. Last year, she hosted one of the semifinalists in her home, and this year is having one of the faculty members.
“It was the most exciting experience for me,” she says of Diyi Tang, the young Chinese pianist who stayed with her last year. “He was here for a week playing non-stop, and I got to listen to him.” When Tang went on to debut at Lincoln Center, Bluth flew to New York City for the concert.
Such classical music immersion is a rediscovered passion for the pianist. She studied piano through her formative years, but gave it up when she went to the University of Pennsylvania, where she majored in math. After settling in New Orleans with her physician husband, she happily devoted her time and attention to raising three children. But she always thought she’d someday like to play again.
It took a disaster to make it happen.
The Bluths’ Lakewood South home flooded when the levees broke during Hurricane Katrina, and they returned home to find the family’s (long-untouched) baby grand piano flipped upside down, its lid torn off. They relocated to a relative’s apartment on Broadway Avenue and, later, to a condo Uptown.
“It was very depressing for two years,” Bluth says. “It took me that long to get my life back together.”
But Bluth, like so many New Orleanians, discovered that most clouds have a silver lining or two.
“Katrina was something of a godsend for me,” she explains. “My whole life had been devoted to my husband and my children. I decided I was going to take care of myself, to do things for me.”
First on her bucket list: Learning to play Chopin’s Fantasy Impromptu and Revolutionary Etude.
She found an exceptional teacher in Daniel Weilbaecher, executive and artistic director of The Musical Arts Society of New Orleans, which holds the Piano Competition. She bought a baby grand that fits perfectly in a small studio behind her dining room. The music flowed back.
Now she plays four or five hours a day when she’s in town, and almost as much when she’s on the road with her husband or visiting children and grandchildren.
Last week, as I sat in her studio, she played Fantasy Impromptu for me, her fingers moving nimbly and expertly over the keys. As the notes swelled, I let the music wash over me, and thought about passions and recovery and people who seize opportunity.
I admire people like Bluth, people who bend but don’t break from life’s harsher lessons, and come away knowing themselves more deeply.
I think there are a lot of people here like that, post-Katrina.
“I feel like I’m achieving something,”Bluth said, when I asked her what music had done for her. “For years, I not only didn’t play, but I didn’t listen.
“Now I want to play everything.”
The International Piano Competition takes place each evening this week at 7 p.m. at Roussel Hall at Loyola University. Tickets are $20 per round, or $15 for seniors and students. A Saturday showcase recital at 2 p.m. is free, and the final competition at 2 p.m. Sunday is $30, or $25 for seniors and students. For tickets and schedule information, click here.