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Maria Murphy's classical career blossoms.

Passionate Pianist

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Like a rose unfolding into spring one crimson petal at a time, pianist Maria Murphy opens herself to the selection of sheet music before her with caution and restrained exuberance. She is on intimate terms with the light and airy melody of Claude Debussy's "Clair de lune," yet greets each note anew.

Gradually the music and master reacquaint and the pianist begins to sway in hypnotic attunement. Her shoulders rise and fall with each crescendo. Her fingers glide smoothly with confidence across the keys, making it difficult to see where her touch ends and the black and ivory begin.

"My favorite pieces of music are those that tend to fill me," Murphy says. "They're the ones that become a part of me as I play."

Murphy, a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University's music department and an elementary music teacher in Henrico County, has just released her debut CD "Passionate Rose."

The CD offers a selection of fiery and ethereal ballads that have been well-received at radio stations across the country.

Fred Child, music director for WNYC Radio in New York, says the first track, "They Will Not Lend Me a Child" by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, has done very well at his station. "I'm always on the lookout for interesting new pieces," he says. "This one is very nice." Locally, Richmonders can hear her work on WCVE 88.9 FM.

Classical piano is a less likely path for African-American musicians to gravitate toward, Murphy says. Jazz and rhythm and blues are more traditional avenues to follow. As a result, she says, she's often felt alone in her pursuit.

"It has been discouraging at times," she says. "But classical music has always been my soul's desire."

And that desire has been with her a long time. Murphy began her musical career at the age of two, with a phonograph and stack of records with nursery rhymes on them. "My mom says I would sit in my room and listen to songs like 'Peas Porridge Hot' and 'Simple Simon' over and over for hours," she says.

But it wasn't until the Hampton native was 10, when her parents brought home a piano for the family's Christmas present, that she began playing.

Murphy says she tries not to simply "play" the notes she reads. She aspires to be a storyteller.

"When everything is flowing just right, I picture a story in my mind and then try to bring that out," she says.

While recording "They Will Not Lend Me a Child," Murphy says she envisioned a woman suffering with an inability to have her own child. "To me this arrangement has some trauma and pain behind it," she says.

Murphy knows something herself about pain and trauma. At the age of 20, she nearly lost her life and had to be hospitalized for more than a month after being diagnosed with Crohn's Disease, an inflammatory bowel disorder.

"Getting ill was devastating. I thought I might never play the piano again," Murphy says. "But whenever the doctors would leave my room, I'd get out a practice book and pretend to play. I didn't feel the keys of a real piano for a long time, but I never stopped playing in my mind."

Now that the 33-year-old is reaching some acclaim, she hopes to perform nationally and get more African-American youth involved in classical pursuits.

"I'd like to get the kids more interested in playing classical music," she says. "Pop music is good for listening to, but there's nothing like sitting down and feeling the music move through you as you create it

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