New Concert Series at Methodist Church Features Eclectic Lineup of Artists
THE PIANO IS THE STAR: Cristina Altamura will inaugurate the Altamura Legacy Concerts, featuring the Steinway piano now installed at Princeton United Methodist Church, on September 24. (Photo by Maria Grazia Facciolá)
By Anne Levin
When concert pianist Cristina Altamura inherited a 1924 Steinway “B Grand” piano from her mentor, pianist Jody Wise, she knew that the beautifully crafted instrument was too special to keep to herself. Three years and a major restoration later, the piano is the centerpiece of a new concert series debuting Sunday, September 24 in the Sanford Davis Room of Princeton United Methodist Church (PUMC).
The Altamura Legacy Concerts will launch with a performance at 4 p.m. featuring Altamura, tenor Fanyong Du, soprano Katie Lerner Lee, and pianist Binna Han in a program marking the 150th anniversary of the birth of Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. Performances in different musical genres, most of which are focused on the historic piano, continue on four more Sundays through April 7, 2024.
“I had already been teaching in a space at the church, and was having recitals in the sanctuary,” said Altamura, who lives in Princeton with her husband, So Percussion’s Adam Sliwinski, and son Guillermo. “The piano they had was an old Yamaha. I saw that they had this beautiful living room area, with Tiffany stained glass windows. And I had this beautiful instrument that I didn’t want to just keep in my house. It all started to make sense.”
The Steinway was in need of some attention. It has been restored by Cantabile Piano Arts in Yonkers, N.Y., and now resides in the Sanford Davis Room at PUMC “so that the public can enjoy its warm and sonorous character, and also to honor Jody Wise’s legacy,” reads a press release about the concert series.
Altamura, who has been a soloist with the Bucharest Philharmonic, the Romanian State Philharmonic, and other orchestras, was 14 when she met Wise. Though Wise was a pianist, she was also a communications specialist who helped Altamura fashion her biography, write programs, and market herself as her career progressed.
“She was my mentor, but not my teacher,” Altamura said. “She was an extra set of ears before I had any performances. That’s important, and not something that is easy to find.”
Wise died during the pandemic. “I lost my mentor, which is sad. But it’s kind of a joyous thing that is springing up here,” Altamura said. “I think she would have been ecstatic, because she loved music and she taught me a lot about programming, about how to be an artistic director. That has really helped me in planning this series.”
Each concert in the series will begin with an informal talk by Altamura and Sliwinski, whose So Percussion is Ensemble in Residence at Princeton University. A coffee/tea bar by Illy Coffee at Earth’s End Princeton will precede the performance from 3:30 to 4 p.m. “At that
traditional teatime, the setting sunlight transforms the colors of the brilliant stained glass windows, casting a glow that morphs in real time with the music,” reads the release.
The eclectic lineup of the series reflects Altamura’s varied interests. The October 15 concert celebrates the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, featuring her childhood friend Ana “Rokafella” Garcia in a discussion of her career as a choreographer and the proliferation of breakdance all over the world. Also on the program is avant garde pianist Adam Tendler, performing works from the contemporary piano repertoire.
Altamura is particularly enthusiastic about the January 28 concert, which invites pianists from the Princeton area to celebrate Mozart’s birthday. “It’s a three-hour program, a showcase for teachers to perform for their students, and an opportunity for a lot of students to come out and meet each other,” she said. “In January, we need a party.”
The final two programs are March 3, when Russian pianist and Tchaikovsky competition winner Boris Petrushansky plays Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, paired with Schumann’s Kreisleriana; and April 7, when Italian pianist Andrea Turini plays Bach’s Goldberg Variations.
A large portion of the proceeds from the concerts will help fund the All-Abilities Music Creation Project, which Altamura and Sliwinski co-direct. The program “commissions new pieces of music for students whose educational needs are not being met by the current repertoire and pedagogy for their instrument, due to factors which could include a disability, lack of representation in the field, or other unmet needs,” according to a description on the Legacy Arts website.
With this series, Altamura is also continuing her family’s tradition of philanthropy. Her parents’ organization, Inter-Cities Performing Arts Inc., helped launch the careers of many opera singers, conductors, and musicians, most significantly with the Altamura/Caruso International Voice competition, founded in 1988.
“I’d love to make this a hub for the community,” Altamura said. “I don’t know of any other place in the country that has this many pianists. To have them playing this wonderful instrument, in this incredible space, will be very special.”
Tickets range from $25-$40, with suggested offerings of $5-$10 for partial view seating in the sanctuary next to the Sanford Davis Room. Princeton United Methodist Church is at Nassau Street and Vandeventer Avenue. Visit legacyartsinternational.org for more information.