Thursday, April 15, 2010

Ax's generosity

A touching story from Philadelphia:
Despina Thomas tried her best, but couldn't get the Kimmel Center attendant to bend. Her son, she pleaded, was an aspiring pianist who worshiped Emanuel Ax.
The attendant shook his head.
But five minutes with Mr. Ax would make a lifetime of difference for her son.
So they started to walk away, mother and 10-year-old son, when the boy turned and made a pitch of his own. To this day she doesn't know what her son said that night in 2002, just that it worked, and soon the boy was sitting with the renowned musician, being asked whether he liked to practice.
"Tony came out glowing," his mother recalled. "Since that day he never complained about practicing."
Antonios S. "Tony" Thomas was an only child. "He was everything to us," his mother said, four years after his death at 13 from leukemia. "Everything."
He was a seventh grader at William Penn Charter School when he got sick - a swimmer, a Boy Scout, a baseball and tennis player, a pianist and trumpeter, an A student who told his parents not only that he would go to Harvard but also that he'd win a scholarship so they would not have to pay.
"He said he was going to be president," said his father, Sotirios "Steve" Thomas, owner of Fiesta Pizza in Roxborough. "He told me that."
Tony died in 2006, before his parents could honor their promise to him: that once they moved into a bigger house they would buy him a grand piano. "He worked so hard," his mother said.
When it came time to honor his memory, the Thomases decided to do so with music.
A new arts center was rising in the middle of Penn Charter's campus in East Falls. It needed a piano. Tony had always dreamed of owning a Steinway. So that's what his parents bought for the school.
When there was talk of a concert to honor the building and its benefactors, Despina shared her designs for the Steinway's premiere.
"Don't you think Emanuel Ax would like to come and play Tony's piano?"
She asked that of the school's development director, who knew better than to refuse her. He knew an alum who was an executive at Sony who knew how to reach the pianist's people.
Despina sealed the deal over the winter, when Ax returned to the Kimmel Center. With the spirit of Tony giving her the courage, she worked her way backstage and made her case in person. She thanked Ax for his generosity, and wrapped her arms around him. "You could feel his compassion," she said.
And that is how Emanuel Ax wound up playing Tony's piano Tuesday night at Penn Charter.
The recital in the new building was free, in a sense. Ax had donated his time - he was already to be in town for a benefit with the Lyra Society and concerts with the Philadelphia Orchestra. The school gave tickets to donors of the performance center, which was dedicated in January.
Earlier Tuesday, Ax told me that when he had heard the family gave a $55,000 concert piano in honor of their son, he was moved to come and perform. He's been showcasing pieces by Chopin and Schumann on his tour - "that's very emotional and touching music, and so that's what I'll play," he said before the memorial.
That piano is a rare and lasting gift, he said. "I think the more people that experience music the better. . . . I think it should be part of everyone's experience, like reading, painting, math, TV, iPhones. We have so many different possibilities, and I think kids should be exposed to everything."
That was Tony, his parents say, exposed to everything, enthused about everything.
Darryl J. Ford, head of school, told the audience Tuesday night how in Tony's first conversation with him back in lower school, the boy had said, "I'm Greek, you know."
Aidan Ryan, Tony's friend since kindergarten, nodded at the story.
He was "so proud," recalled Ryan, now a senior. "I will always remember him with a smile on his face."
That smile lit the dozens of photographs that fill the Thomases' house in Roxborough - five pictures of Tony on the keyboard of his old Baldwin upright, nine others on the music rack.
His mother sat, dressed in a black pantsuit, talking for hours while her husband listened but said little, getting up and walking outside when he could no longer bear to stay in the room.
"He was my right arm in the house," she said. "He was even handy. He loved to cook, to bake. He loved athletics and music, and he was good at everything. If I had to choose one word, he was a giver. Even when he was sick he was looking after us."
She told the story: the cold that wouldn't go away, the aches in his shoulder, the red spots, the diagnosis, the treatment, the remissions, the months at Sloan-Kettering in New York. She portrayed her son as a fighter who protected her feelings until the end.
"The last time the leukemia came back," she said, "he knew, but he didn't want to upset us."
Tony Thomas is buried in Athens, Greece, next to Despina's mother. For a year and a half she couldn't bear to leave Greece, but she is better now, she said, with Tony's help. She thinks of him and has the strength. The thought of generations of students playing the piano that bears his name on a small plaque helps, too.
"It will bring joy to many," said the boy's mother. "That's my hope."
Said the boy's father, "It's so his name will be forever."

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