Fourteen-year-old Michael Lee beat stage fright long ago.
The musical prodigy and award-winning classical pianist has performed with the Bellevue Philharmonic Orchestra and participated in the Portland International Piano Festival. In the academic arena, he is a nationally ranked chess master and reigning national junior high chess champion.
But with his next performance, the pressure’s on.
Tonight Lee will be the only child to perform in the Ten Grands Concert at Benaroya Hall – the biggest venue he’s ever performed at, with a 2,500-seat auditorium. The event, which begins at 7 p.m. and costs $120, features 10 grand pianos and 10 concert pianists who were chosen to play a variety of classical and modern pieces.
Traditionally presented in Portland, Ten Grands comes to Seattle for the first time this year. Concert proceeds will benefit The Snowman Foundation, which generates scholarships and music lessons for disadvantaged youth in Oregon and southwest Washington and helps purchase pianos for schools and organizations in need. It also will benefit Patrons of Northwest Civic, Cultural and Charitable Organizations (PONCHO), which supports the vitality and variety of the arts.
Sitting on a piano bench in his Bellevue living room Wednesday afternoon, Lee taps the piano keys with his fingers like a stenographer to emphasize the storm in Franz Liszt’s “Waldesrauschen” (Forest Murmurs). He has practiced the piece for the past nine months to be ready for tonight’s performance.
By the end of the song, the storm calms and Lee’s strumming becomes less methodical as he slows his fingers, moving them gracefully over the keys and swaying his head up and down with the notes.
“In your home, it’s easier to play by yourself because you know that even if you make a mistake, no one’s going to know,” said the Odle Middle School 8th grader, who was wearing corduroys, a T-shirt and socks. “But once everyone’s watching, you feel really pressured to play perfectly. If you make a slight mistake, you get nervous.”
Though jittery, Lee said he also feels very lucky to play in the event.
“It’s an honor,” said Sok, Lee’s mother. “They could have chosen anybody and it’s really an honor that they chose him. It’s a privilege.”
The Snowman Foundation discovered Lee when he was participating in a master class in Oregon. The foundation then contacted his piano teacher, Willard Schultz, who maintains a private music studio in Seattle.
“I feel really proud to be supporting this cause because it’s really important for people to learn music,” said Lee, who has been playing the piano since he was in kindergarten.
He says playing the piano has become a “serious hobby” for him over the years and he puts in a couple hours of practice every day, depending on his homework load.
“Music helps further your emotional understanding because music in a lot of ways helps you psychologically,” he continued.
Sok said she is proud that her son’s performance will help support the arts organizations. Learning music can be expensive, she said, and not every child has the financial ability to learn an instrument.
“Any means a foundation can provide to enable children to learn music is a good thing,” she said.
Though she is “tied up in knots” as well waiting for the performance, Sok said at the same time she is jubilant and proud of Lee.
“When he plays, it’s beautiful.”
Carrie Wood can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 425-453-4290.