Veteran keyboardist Charles Webb would love it if one thought pops into the minds of listeners to him and piano partner Steven Mann at the next Columbus Indiana Philharmonic concert Feb. 5: “This place is a zoo.”
Webb, still performing with ensembles worldwide the past few years at age 89, will present along with Mann composer Camille Saint-Saens’ classic and whimsical “The Carnivale of the Animals.” Most know it as the piece in which the artist allows varied orchestral instruments to give voice to a multifarious menagerie that would make Marlin Perkins proud.
Call it the “Wild Kingdom” given a compiled expression. Fourteen critters, to be exact.
Webb played the piece in his first appearance with longtime friend David Bowden, the orchestra’s artistic director, in 2002. And fittingly, this will mark his last performance with Bowden in Bowden’s top role with this orchestra, because he will retire at season’s end.
It also will also mark at least the 26th time that Webb has presented the work publicly. He laughed at the idea that he could play it perfectly in his sleep by now. He’ll hint that no self-respecting musician ever would relax enough to quite think a work would require less than … well, work.
“Please bear in mind that I still practice every day,” Webb said, speaking from his Bloomington home.
Then, with little prompting, Webb turned educator and offered a patient and kind three-minute history of Saint-Saens’ intention with the celebrated composition. He followed that with his more-than-accessible description of the song.
“This is so fetching and so enjoyable from beginning to end,” he said. “It’s just such a wonderful music composition. … It’s such fun to do, and very imaginative.”
Though Webb began playing piano at age 4 and church organ in his native Texas, amazingly, at age 6, he was unaware of the piece until his college days at Southern Methodist University.
“When we were deeply involved with two-piano literature is how I got exposed to ‘The Carnival of the Animals,’” he said. “There aren’t very many occasions when you will have two concert grand Steinways in the same place and have sufficient time to do it.”
Many elements of Webb’s life seem grand beyond instrumentation. Through the years, his circle of close friends has included such industry giants as Leonard Bernstein. Yet, Webb remains so down to earth that, more than once during a recent chat, he expresses thanks for the local newspaper including his often-glowing Philharmonic concert reviews that heap praise on Bowden for everything from his programming to his conducting polish.
Bowden, in turn, salutes Webb, the former longtime dean of the prestigious and top-ranked Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, in a powerful manner that he reserves for an exclusive few in the classical world. Those would include past concert guest artists such as top-tier violinist Cho-Liang Lin.
“Charles Webb is an amazing musician who invested his life into helping young talented music students become professional musicians and music teachers,” Bowden said. “He did this while also maintaining an incredibly active professional life as an outstanding performing musician – as a pianist, organist, and conductor.”
In fact, he recently was honored for his 60-plus years of service to Bloomington’s First United Methodist Church as organist. Yet, Webb mentioned that this probably will be his only public concert performance this year.
“But,” he said with a lilt in his voice, “I’ll keep practicing. Music is still with me, and I’ll keep at it. And I am essentially pleased with the results.”
Given his continuing schedule through the years, so, indeed, are his audiences.