The first thing you notice about Michael Arnowitt’s music room, aside from the Steinway grand piano, is that there’s a lot he doesn’t notice about it. He’s concentrating on playing music. And Arnowitt is nearly blind and unable to spot the clutter on the floor, the letters stacked on a table, or the view outside three shuttered windows — of Montpelier, from a fine vantage point overlooking the Winooski River. While he can’t fully savor this sight, living in central Vermont means more to Arnowitt than seeing a landscape. It’s a place where he can live with political and artistic integrity, he says.
After two solo appearances with the Boston Symphony as a teenager, Arnowitt’s career could have taken him into the competitive side of the music world. Instead, he moved to Vermont in his early twenties. He values small-town life and the pursuit of music as its own reward, he explains.
“It was a choice,” Arnowitt says. “I can play Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ over and over and make more money, but it wouldn’t be that interesting to me. I’d rather do what I want creatively, because I only have one life.”
The pianist will mark a milestone in that life — his 50th birthday — with a gala concert on Sunday, January 6, in the Montpelier High School auditorium. Arnowitt will be the featured soloist, composer and arranger, and he’s assembled a 55-piece orchestra, to be conducted by Scott Speck.
“When I was growing up, I really loved the orchestra,” Arnowitt says. “The irony is, I play the only instrument that isn’t typically in it.”
Arnowitt was raised in the Boston area, with what he jokingly calls “my pushy parents,” who wanted every opportunity for their musically gifted son. When he was in high school, they brought him to New York to audition at Juilliard. The screening process began with a pre-audition, in which he played well and was encouraged to apply. The following year, at his formal audition, he played a Chopin Ballade.
“I played a little bit, maybe 30 seconds or so, and I can still remember this teacher’s voice.” Arnowitt does his best imitation of a growl, though his own voice is too gentle for it. “‘Cut to the business,’ he said.” That meant jump to the difficult ending of the piece. “I didn’t play well,” Arnowitt recalls. “And I didn’t get in. But my parents spoke to the director.” On the basis of his earlier audition, he was accepted as a composition student with a piano minor.
After Arnowitt graduated from high school, he tried two paths. His parents suggested he not enter the conservatory after all but attend college for a well-rounded education. After a year and a half at Yale University, he spent time in New York City observing the music scene. He didn’t like what he saw. Professional auditions were two minutes long. “They would decide right away: ‘No, we don’t want this person,’” Arnowitt says. “Honestly, art isn’t about this.”
Arnowitt wanted more from music, and from life. He took a two-month solo bicycle trip to think about next steps. Traveling from Maine to Virginia, he passed through Vermont, and fell for it. “I had never spent any significant time in the country,” he says. “It was so beautiful.”
Arnowitt moved to Plainfield and enrolled at Goddard College, where he studied ecology. “Goddard taught me something, and central Vermont taught me something: You have to be a self-starter,” he says. “Go out and do things and don’t wait for people to invite you.”
Arnowitt did just that. After graduating, in the 1980s, he worked on community music projects, using concerts to raise money for causes such as the peace movement. He conceived two programs integrating music and poetry, one about World War II and another for Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Arnowitt has traveled to Europe and Russia seven times to perform and has released five recordings, including one that features music by Vermont composers. In 2004, filmmaker Susan Bettmann made a documentary about his life and music, Beyond 88 Keys: The Music of Michael Arnowitt, which has aired on Vermont Public Television.
With a concert centered on a significant birthday, Arnowitt is thinking about the arc of his career. Over time, his style has evolved. “I feel like I can get a lot of new, different colors out of the piano now that I couldn’t when I was 26,” he says. “On the flip side, there are some things I was maybe better physically able to do when younger. Your muscular control is crisper. But there aren’t significant problems for a pianist until they get into their mid-seventies,” he adds. “Your joints might age, but there are so many other aspects to piano playing.”
Each selection on his concert program encapsulates a theme of Arnowitt’s career. The major piece will be Brahms’ Piano Concerto no. 2, which he says he’s always dreamed of performing. “I fell in love with Brahms at 13. I really connected and identified with his music,” he notes.
Arnowitt also has an affinity for Bach and, for this concert, has selected the Italian Concerto. It survives only as a work for solo harpsichord, but Arnowitt has rearranged it for full orchestration, effectively restoring the score to the concerto status its title indicates.
Though Arnowitt is principally a classical musician, he has also composed and played jazz. From 2001 to 2006, he presented concerts and workshops with Green Mountain Jazz, a group he cofounded. So it’s no surprise that jazz will be included in his birthday concert. Arnowitt is bringing in fellow jazz musicians to perform his composition “Bulgarian Hoedown.”
The other original on the program is a new piece called “Haiku Textures.”
“The orchestra is starting to get a little nervous because I haven’t given them the music yet,” Arnowitt says with a laugh. “It needs to get finished.”
But he’s confident about meeting his deadline, despite the challenge of his poor vision. Arnowitt has retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease. “It may not be accidental that I’ve gravitated toward a life activity that isn’t focused on vision at all,” he muses. “It’s your sense of hearing first and foremost, and secondly your sense of touch. To create the sounds, you need to have a good sense of touch.”
Diagnosed at age 9, Arnowitt is unsentimental about his loss of sight. “There’s a progression of the disease that’s different for everyone, but you do go blind from it,” he says. He’s been night-blind since his twenties and now can only roughly distinguish faces and forms. This meager view is cloudy and filled with gray specks. “I feel like I’m pretty near the end of the disease,” he says quietly.
To read or learn a new score, Arnowitt uses a display that scans a page and magnifies it. His computer is adapted for his visual disability, but it’s no simple task to move an oversize cursor with a mouse and place a note in his composition software.
His pleasure in writing music, though, seems to overshadow the difficulty. In the composition “Haiku Textures,” Arnowitt explains, the poetic form, built on three measures of five, seven and five syllables, is an organizing principle.
Arnowitt will sit in the audience to experience the effect of the musicians positioned in different corners of the auditorium. “I’m taking some trios of instruments and breaking them off from the orchestra,” he says. “So the sounds are going to be coming at the audience from all around.”
For his birthday concert, Arnowitt is urging the orchestra to take risks. “I’m a firm believer in the tightrope,” he says. “It’s better to have a creative performance with some moments that were flops than to play it safe throughout.”
Michael Arnowitt Birthday Gala, January 6, 2 p.m. at Montpelier High School Smilie Auditorium. $20-50. Info, 229-0984. email@example.com. mapiano.com