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Piano 'marathon' highlights classical music's enduring appeal

Something about the inside of the First and Franklin Presbyterian Church looks good enough to eat. Its pink walls are adorned with ostentatious white piping and flourishes. The style is called Flamboyant Gothic, and the effect is something like a birthday cake.

But the focus Sunday was not on sight but on sound. A series of nine skilled pianists approached the church’s Steinway for a four-hour “marathon concert” that began with Bach and culminated with Liszt. The format is a way to showcase the city’s plethora of great talent, said Jason Kissel, minister of music and organist at the church.

“In many ways, Baltimore is a piano town,” Kissel said. The city of Eubie Blake and Philip Glass has long been an incubator of piano talent, thanks in part to the Peabody Institute, just a few blocks away.

Chad Bowles is the chair of piano at Peabody, and played his set before dashing off to another sort of marathon: He had five hours of piano lessons ahead of him.

In the marathon’s second hour, 18-year-old Seth Schultheis took to the altar. A senior at the Baltimore School for the Arts, he’s been playing the piano since age 5. While many kids his age prefer rap, Schultheis adores Russian composer Rachmaninoff.

“I love all the melancholy in his music, the deep soulfulness,” he said.

Retiree John Schultz leaned forward, his head resting on the pew in front of him, to soak in the Bach while musician Lura Johnson played.

“Bach is different,” Schultz said. “More introspective.” To Schultz, the appeal of classical lies in its ancientness. “It’s been around for centuries. It’ll be around for centuries more.”

The same could be said of the church. When it was built in the 1850s, it attracted some of Baltimore’s richest churchgoers — who helped ensure, through the creation of an endowment, its survival well into the 21st century, Kissel said.

The church’s trademark spire was added later, and became the highest point in the city. That’s no longer true: Generations of skyscrapers have grown up around it, but the spire remains the highest church steeple in the city. And it’s the inspiration for the name of the church’s “Spire Series,” which began in 2010, of which Sunday’s marathon is a part.

Ironically, a concert of such ostentatious music would have been unthinkable in the church’s early days, Kissel said. Back then, the Presbyterian church permitted only more modest music — psalms only.

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