Classic approach: KU music professor releases CD set of live performances that’s ‘freakish in size’

Pianist and Kansas University professor Steven Spooner performs a 20-minute concert during a release party for his 5-CD set Sept. 22 at the Spencer Museum of Art. Spooner is playing an 1886 Bechstein concert grand piano that was once owned by composer Franz Liszt.

Pianist and KU music professor Steven Spooner meets with Nancy Hawkins, of Lawrence, left, and Ann Gibbens Davis, of Sykesville, Md., following his 20-minute concert during his CD release party Sept. 22 at the Spencer Museum of Art. Gibbens Davis, a concert pianist herself, described Spooner's performance as very

Where to buy ‘The Historical Piano Recital Series’

Steven Spooner’s “The Historical Piano Recital Series, Vols. I-V” and film “Aspects of Liszt” are available on iTunes and and in music stores.

Steven Spooner could be any professor at Kansas University, unassuming in a sport coat and dress slacks. But even in their best student evaluations, most professors aren’t referred to as “dazzling” or “as near perfection as it’s possible to get.”

That is how music critics have described the piano professor’s and international prize-winning pianist’s live performances. Now Spooner, 42, in his sixth year on the KU music faculty, has assembled a five-album compilation of live performances, “The Historical Piano Recital Series,” and a DVD, “Aspects of Liszt.”

“The reason this project is interesting and newsworthy is because it’s freakish in size. This kind of product has not really been done since Anton Rubinstein did one in 1885,” Spooner says. “The difference is that other people have done something like this in their mid- to late career. Mine was more like a monumental self-discovery.”

The collection, which he has been compiling and recording for three years, contains Spooner’s performances of Franz Liszt’s work, including one played on an 1886 Bechstein concert grand piano that was once owned by Liszt and is now housed at the Spencer Museum of Art.

Spooner has studied and played Liszt’s work extensively and is on the board of the American Liszt Society; as it happens, that historical Liszt piano is at KU. The CDs also include the works of Frederic Chopin, Johannes Brahms and other composers, along with some of Spooner’s own arrangements.

“He is really doing the music world a service by putting together this collection,” says KU School of Music Dean Robert Walzel. “It is a testament to how unusual a performer he is, to be able to play so accurately in the live performance that it can be put on the CD as a recording and listened to repeatedly.”

Spooner began playing piano as a child at the behest of his parents, who were not musicians themselves.

“My mom’s idea was that it was some type of indentured service to the household to play piano when guests came over,” Spooner says.

When he said he wanted to quit playing piano, his teacher gave him some Chopin records to listen to. Spooner was inspired.

“When I was 11, my parents asked what I wanted for my birthday,” Spooner says. “I told them I wanted another room added on to the house so I could listen to these recordings and practice in peace. My mom said, ‘Well, you’re getting a roller-skating party.'”

Spooner and his wife, Jung, a piano teacher, live in Lawrence and have three young children of their own, in whom they are trying to instill a love of music. All three are named after pianists: Alicia, 7, Tatiana, 4, and Franz, 3 months.

“Classical music is such a rarified field. People don’t know what a concert pianist does,” Spooner says. “I’m such a piano nerd that I listen to recordings every day and read books about piano. And every single day, no matter what, I practice three to four hours.”

He also carries out his family’s tradition, making his daughter Alicia play for company in their home on one of the Spooners’ three pianos.

Spooner continues to teach at KU and is passing along the lessons he learned from the collection to his students.

“All my mentors thought this project was a terrible idea. I’m so glad I didn’t listen to them, because this project was good for me,” he says. “I told my class, ‘Don’t listen to anything I say, if you disagree.'”