Mt. Pleasant area pianist to perform solo recital at St. Vincent College
Pianist Aaron Gray knows his way around those black and white keys.
Be it while playing jazz numbers at private parties, on classical pieces in the performance studio or during hymns as music director of Reunion Presbyterian Church in Mt. Pleasant, Gray exhibits an expert's touch, according to several sources who have guided his musical development over much of his life.
Gray's talents will be on display Saturday at St. Vincent College in Unity.
A music performance major at the school, Gray will perform his junior recital at 3 p.m. in the Performing Arts Center of the Robert S. Carey Student Center on campus. Admission is free and open to the public.
“This will be my first recital as a solo piano performance major. I've collaborated with other performers during recitals in the past, but this will be my first one alone,” said Gray, 22. “I'm really excited about it, I'm a little nervous, but I really enjoy performing.”
He will be playing works by composers Giuseppe Domenico Scarlatti, Franz Joseph Haydn, Achille-Claude Debussy and Norman Dello Joio.
Gray will also be joined by Thomas Octave, St. Vincent assistant professor and chairman of the music department, to perform one other piece, he said.
Octave will provide vocal accompaniment during Gray's rendition of a work by Nancy Galbraith, chairwoman of the musical composition department at Carnegie Mellon University, entitled “Music, When Soft Voices Die,” which is based on an 1821 poem of the same title by Percy Bysshe Shelley.
“Since my first day at St. Vincent, (Octave) has really helped me,” Gray said. “He's the reason I chose St. Vincent.”
Octave said the duet with Gray will give his student the opportunity to showcase his talents at collaboration.
“(Aaron) has that can-do attitude and he wants to participate in making music and help others to make music,” Octave said. “That's a very rare quality to find in a young musician who is still training, that he wants to share so much.”
At the age of 8, Gray began to study piano weekly with Gary Newhouse at the Greensburg home of Gray's late grandmother, Fran Gray.
“We had two or three years together. Aaron was always a very exuberant student, always well-prepared,” Newhouse said. “I had a pretty close relationship with his grandmother. She made it very clear that he was going to practice, she had to have been quite influential.”
During the next 10 years he went through various studio changes before studying under Mark Clark.
In high school, Gray sang in choir ensembles and often accompanied for them.
He also began teaching privately as a senior in high school and became the pianist for Pleasant Unity Methodist Church.
In 2010, Newhouse said he bumped into Gray and asked him if he would be willing to offer his time as a substitute pianist at Derry Presbyterian Church, where Newhouse has long served as music director/organist.
“The folks there truly appreciated his abilities,” Newhouse said. “I would say he always had the drive, motivation and desire to reach this stage of his development. I'm very happy for him.”
In the fall of that year, Gray began studying piano with Lisa Spang, St. Vincent adjunct professor in the music department and a full-time music teacher at Elizabeth-Forward High School.
“He's certainly one of the hardest-working students I've ever met,” said Spang, who introduced Gray to the works of composer Robert Schumann, which he said have influenced him greatly.
Gray has also sung with the St. Vincent Singers, and he became the summer theater cabaret musician and substituted for campus ministry as a pianist.
He has also served as the primary pianist for Pleasant Unity United Methodist Church in Pleasant Unity and as a substitute pianist at First Reformed United Church of Christ in Greensburg.
In June, Gray was appointed the music director and organist at Reunion Presbyterian.
“I really enjoy teaching choir there on Wednesdays. It's one of the things I wanted to do after I graduate, so it's really helpful getting this experience,” said Gray, who practices three hours daily.
The Rev. Paul Rankin, pastor of Reunion Presbyterian, said officials at St. Vincent recommended Gray due to what was reported to be his great character.
“I'd heard he was just a really great guy, a responsible guy, and he has proven to be that while at the church,” Rankin said.
And an adaptable one, as well, as he was forced to play pieces for the church on piano because the church's organ was destroyed by a lightning strike just a week prior to his hire.
“He was flexible enough to deal with that,” Rankin said. “He's kind of a quiet person, but I think at the same time he really enjoys playing. The congregation has accepted him well and warmly.”
There have already been a few occasions in which Gray has brought along fellow St. Vincent music performance majors to collaborate with him during worship services.
“Those performances were very well-received,” Rankin said. “We certainly have let people know that his recital is coming up. Folks from the church have been to his recitals in the past.”
Gray is a native of Latrobe and the son of Michelle Kershaw.
A.J. Panian is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-547-5722 or firstname.lastname@example.org.