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Date With Density

Richmond pianist Charles Staples looks to tackle some heavy material at his Carnegie Hall recital.

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According to the old joke, the way to get to Carnegie Hall is to "practice, practice, practice." (The punchline sounds best in a throaty German accent, a la Marlene Dietrich.)

"I hate practicing," Richmond pianist Charles Staples says. Still, he has a date with a Steinway March 31 at the venerable venue at 57th and Seventh.

Staples is director of music ministries at Trinity United Methodist Church and a piano instructor at Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Richmond. He got the gig thanks to his old high-school roommate, the Rev. Barry Vaughn, an Episcopal priest. "He decided I needed to play Carnegie Hall," Staples says.

Vaughn secured a grant from their alma mater, the Alabama School of Fine Arts, and rounded up patrons here and there to rent Carnegie's 268-seat Weill Recital Hall for the pianist.

"This won't be my New York debut," Staples says. In 1984, as he was completing doctoral studies in piano performance at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, he performed at Town Hall, picking up a nice blurb for his résumé from the composer Vincent Persichetti, whose music he played in that recital. He's even performed at Carnegie Hall — "the other one, in Lewisburg," W.Va. — accompanying former Richmond Symphony violinist Adam DeGraff in a recital a few years ago.

A very New York word — chutzpah — comes to mind as you look at Staples' upcoming program: Busoni's arrangement of Bach's Chaconne in D minor, Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata and Brahms' Sonata in F minor. This is "warhorse" repertory that virtually every great pianist of the last century has played. Any New York pianophile could drop a string of stellar names, from Vladimir Horowitz and Arthur Rubinstein to Alfred Brendel and Evgeny Kissin, heard playing those pieces at Carnegie Hall.

What does an unheralded pianist from Birmingham, Ala., by way of Richmond have to offer in this music that the best and brightest might have overlooked?

"Good question," Staples says. "I worried a little bit about that when I put together the program. Would it be more attractive to a New York audience if I did some contemporary music, or something else the big people don't play all the time? In the end, I decided to go with music I'm comfortable with, that I've played for years. ... pieces I think I've got something to say about."

A stocky 49-year-old with a black belt in karate (he's no longer an active practitioner), Staples is known locally not only for his willingness to take on finger-busting piano music — Liszt, Rachmaninoff and the like — but also for his ability to engage listeners in a deeper, more elusive work such as Schubert's Sonata in A major.

Could he have been a contender as a concert pianist? "I sometimes regret not trying harder," he says. "But I didn't like doing competitions," the obligatory route to career advancement for classical pianists. "When I didn't place first, I got so depressed it was self-destructive. I wish someone had forced me to examine that and deal with it when I was in my 20s. That's when a performer's career happens, if it's going to happen."

Regrets aside, "I like my life," he says. "I'm a PK [preacher's kid] who's been in a church environment all my life. Trinity is very supportive of my musical work — I never hear, 'You spend too much time playing' — and offers me the chance to conduct, which I enjoy. I'm pretty much free to set my own schedule."

Will the New York gig prod Staples into playing more solo recitals? "I'm adding a piano room to my house," he says. "I guess I should put it to good use." S

Pianist Charles Staples will preview his New York program in free recitals March 25 at 3 p.m. at Trinity United Methodist Church (288-6056) and March 26 at 8 p.m. at VCU's Singleton Center for the Performing Arts (828-6776). Staples performs March 31 at 5:30 p.m. in Weill Recital Hall of New York's Carnegie Hall. Tickets are $20 and may be ordered by calling (212) 247-7800 or visiting www.carnegiehall.org

Style Weekly music critic Clarke Bustard produces Letter V: the Virginia Classical Music Blog, at www.letterv.blogspot.com

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