By Emily Seelbinder
When he was nine, Paul Nitsch served a term as a page in the Kansas House of Representatives. One day, as he was sitting at his assigned station waiting for the light that would signal his turn to carry a message from one legislator to another, he heard the speaker bang his gavel for a short recess. Then to his surprise, he heard the speaker announce that during the recess, the representatives and others present would enjoy a concert by a very talented young man in their midst. Nitsch was summoned to the front of the chamber, a piano was rolled in from behind the speaker's platform and the young man sat down to play.
He had been studying piano for two years, and he was indeed quite talented, but he had no music with him, no repertoire prepared. What could he do? Then, Nitsch says, "I remembered someone told me you could make some pretty good noise running up and down on the black keys."
So that is what he did, rolling his knuckles on the keys for special effects and finishing with a vigorous black-key chord. The room erupted in applause. As he made his way back to the pages' desk, many of the men in the room clapped him on the back, congratulated him on his fine performance and told him he'd represented Kansas well.
Among the most effusive of the legislators was Nitsch's father, who was still holding out hope his son would become a cowboy (the young Nitsch eventually won over his father by learning a piano arrangement of "Cowboy Boogie"). Another was the future US senator Bob Dole.
Fifteen years later Dole would write one of the letters of recommendation that helped Nitsch win a Fulbright scholarship to study in Vienna. The other two letters came from Pulitzer-prize winning composer George Crumb, who taught Nitsch into his teenage years after his family moved to Boulder, Colorado, and internationally recognized piano master Leon Fleisher, with whom Nitsch had studied while completing his master's and one year of doctoral studies at the Peabody Conservatory of Music of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.
After two years in Vienna, Nitsch moved to Charlotte in 1977 to work as a pianist-teacher at then Queens College. Not long after he arrived, he realized he did not want to be a concert pianist any more than he wanted to be a lonesome cowboy. While wondering what he might do next, he accepted an invitation to perform in a chamber music festival at the Garth Newel Music Center in Hot Springs, Virginia.
"I was petrified because this was a new experience," Nitsch recalls, "but I also felt exhilarated by the way we collaborated on our quest for the collective final statement. Our gathered forces succeeded to the last note."
"Making music in a small ensemble, represents the true meaning of democracy, a miniature form of ideal human coexistence."
- Paul Nitsch
Striving toward this ideal has been Nitsch's focus ever since. He took a short leave from teaching in the early 1990s to complete a doctorate of musical arts at the Cleveland Institute of Music of Case Western University, with a specialty in collaborative piano. In addition to performing piano chamber repertoire all over the world, he has for the last 30 years served as artistic director for the Friends of Music at Queens.
Cynthia Tyson, a Queens trustee who served as vice president of academic affairs when the Friends of Music came into being, describes Nitsch as, "in his very essence, an artist. He sees the world, himself and all those around him through his music, through his art. His interpretations have brilliance, shimmering light or deepening thunder, and they always portray the goodness and generosity of his own character."
Charlotte violinist Peter de Vries adds, "Few people have brought as much into my life as Paul has. He is a consummate artist with whom I've had the great pleasure of playing many concerts - and learning more about making music each time."
Longtime friend and Queens arts patron Jerusha Fadial has known Nitsch since he first arrived in Charlotte as a young man. Over the years, she has seen not only his far-reaching public talents, but his personal joy in music. His exuberance is infectious. "We have had the pure delight of knowing and loving Paul since the mid-'70s, when he consented to teach our youngest child," Fadial explains. "Later he taught our son and [my husband] Murray. Through the years he would come to our home heavy-laden with music so our children and their friends could sight read the evening away with him. They refused to eat until many hours had passed. It was all just too much fun to stop."