Island piano virtuoso gets ready to perform ‘Toccata’
Sam Hollister entered his first Piano Extravaganza when he was 7 years old; according to his parents, Steve and Marjorie Hollister, he was the youngest competitor on the stage. The occasion did not rattle him, and he’s been competing ever since. Now 15, the North Kingstown High School freshman has developed into one of the state’s best young musicians.
In April, he won the Haydn Prize at the Piano Extravaganza.
This weekend, Sam will perform Claude Debussy’s “Toccata” at the 10th annual Honors Recital Concert.
This is his third trip to the prestigious event. He is one of only 13 youngsters invited this year; 1,100 students competed in last month’s Solo & Ensemble Festival, sponsored by the Rhode Island Music Educators Association.
He enjoys performing because he likes interpreting the music, he said.
“It’s the culmination of all the work that I put into it,” he said, “and if a person hears music in person, it’s much more moving than if they hear a recording.”
To demonstrate on the family piano, he romped through the “Toccata,” sweeping his fingers over the 88 keys. Judicious application of the damper pedal and the soft pedal accompanied the chords, and he made the instrument sound like 10 grand pianos, all throbbing with the crescendos.
Of course, he did not need sheet music.
“He doesn’t memorize anything,” his father said. “He absorbs it.”
Besides his solo — which is the third and final section of Debussy’s “Pour le Piano” — Sam will accompany vocalists Lindsay Sampson and Nicholas Jorgensen in “Tonight,” a duet from Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story.”
The free June 19 recital starts at 3 p.m. at Providence College’s Smith Center for the Performing Arts. The event is sponsored by the educators association, the Rhode Island Alliance for Arts Education and the Providence College Music Department.
“He’s always loved to perform on the piano and play for people,” his mother said. “All his life, he’s been involved with music.” Some of the interest came from her example, his parents said.
“We started him off,” his father joked. “It’s our fault.” His mother sang and played piano, and Sam liked to play with the keys on their baby grand. He admired one of her repertoire pieces, “The Spinning Song” by Albert Ellmenreich, and he wanted to learn it. His father took him to the parent-child Four Hands Piano class at the University of Rhode Island. Sam took to piano like a prodigy, his father said. He started playing at 5.
“It was clear fairly early,” he laughed. “He was not normal.” Sam had perfect pitch. He learned “The Spinning Song” and played it at that first Piano Extravaganza. Julie Tager, the organist at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, taught him his first lessons in the choral practice room. By 7, Sam played Handel’s “Largo” at the church, which the Hollisters attend, and entered his first Jamestown Talent Show. That same year, he tried the Piano Extravaganza.
Although his rendition didn’t win an award, his performance impressed and resulted in Sam’s ultimately becoming a private pupil of Dr. Manabu Takasawa, University of Rhode Island’s music associate professor. His composure on stage, his father said, made him special.
“Sam was different,” he said. “He had no issues getting up in front of people.” In second grade, he asked to play for the morning assembly, his father said.
He tests himself every year in two events — the Piano Extravaganza and the Music Teachers National Association competition. Sam has won the MTNA three times and represented Rhode Island at the Northeast Regionals. It’s a tough event, he said, and his father agreed.
“My complaint is they make no effort to have social events,” Steve Hollister said. “They go there; they do their thing, and they leave.” Although most of the people at the competitions are nice, it’s not the place to make friends.
“There’s not a clear-cut way to describe people,” Sam said, because some are very focused on the competition. He has made more friends at the Interlochen (Michigan) Summer Music Camp. There, he heard performances that impressed him — Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” Tchaikovsky’s “Violin Concerto” and Korngold’s “Violin Concerto.” The Korngold most impressed because of the performer, Philippe Quint, he said.
“He went all the way up on the finger board on the highest string and had no pitch problems,” Sam said. “He also had a strange amount of confidence most performers don’t have.”
Sam also plays chamber music with the Rhode Island Philharmonic Music School. And he plays with his high school orchestra and accompanies the high school chorus.
His parents have encouraged him, while understanding their son still has a wide range of interests.
“I like to sail a lot,” Sam said. He said that he has spent every summer of his life since he was 4 years old on the water. As for a career, he’s not committing yet. He likes music, but he thinks he may study science instead.
“My bigger passion is physics,” Sam said. He likes the “black and white” facts that math and science offer, he said.
“It’s nice to be able to answer things,” he said.