Adam Tendler

Ruby’s Rap
by Ruby Comer

Adam Tendler

Photo by Greg Parkinson
Photo by Greg Parkinson

Earlier this year, the pianist Adam Tendler preformed here in Los Angeles. Before the concert, I learned that he was a finalist for the 2012 American Pianist Association Classical Fellowship Award and the 2013 American Prize. Adam is an AIDS and LGBT activist, and when he performs his piece, “Night Thoughts” (“a meditative recital program of modern American piano music”), he donates his profits to one or more local organizations. “Night Thoughts,” a concert he performed at Rothko Chapel in Texas, can be viewed on Adam’s website.

The virtuoso was raised in Montpelier, Vermont, not far from The Trapp Family Lodge (of The Sound of Music fame), one of my favorite havens. The “maverick pianist” (The New Yorker) founded a nightly jazz series in New York and serves on the faculty of Third Street Music School Settlement. On the personal front, he has a beau of nearly five years.

Adam and I met up at UCLA one afternoon near the performing arts center, and sat on the grass amid the lively outdoor sculptures.

Ruby Comer: I want to be completely clear…please explain exactly what you do professionally.

Illustration by Davidd Batalon
Illustration by Davidd Batalon

Adam Tendler: I perform modern music, which ranges from pieces composed this morning to a hundred years ago. I usually perform and study other people’s music, but sometimes I compose my own works. For instance, I recently premiered a protest piece in memory of Matthew Shepard called “HATE SPEECH,” for piano and audience cell phones. I also have a teaching studio and so the piano becomes a platform for education. And then of course I write about music and my life in the field, which inevitably involves the piano.

You’re cuttin’ a new rug, piano man! You entertain and educate through the piano. Whom did you listen to growing up in Vermont?
I grew up on Madonna, Prince, Beethoven, Chopin, and everyone in between. I have two older sisters who exposed me to everything from pop to metal to gangsta rap, and at the same time I took piano lessons and was raised with classical music around me all the time. Everyone in my family played the piano, and my grandfather was a piano teacher. But I suppose my heroes changed over time. As I grew to appreciate classical music as a vessel for my own self-expression, I started to find heroes in composers and performers who seemed to speak a language that resonated with me, and even this has been a kaleidoscope of different people over the years.

Adam, you are a one-man band. The AIDS epidemic…[he cuts me off and asserts]
…is the holocaust our community suffered in the eighties and nineties—and the indifference of those in positions of power who could have helped save lives. This gets me angry.

But then, Ruby, I also think of how that widespread ignorance and fear actually galvanized our community, and how we found unity and courage and power through the crisis. There’s still so much to do: A cure. A vaccine. An end to stigma.

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When did you first learn about the epidemic?
I’m not sure about specifics, but, growing up in Vermont, my first knowledge of AIDS probably came via the entertainment industry and its response, from MTV promos to magazine articles to celebrities wearing red ribbons. [He pulls out some sheet music from his backpack to shield his eyes from the bright sun.] I also remember watching and re-watching the movie version of And The Band Played On when it first came out in 1993. I was eleven and HBO played it all the time back then. But I definitely already knew about AIDS before watching that film. Probably Madonna told me about it.

[I chuckle.] How has the AIDS epidemic affected you?
I lost a friend and a musical colleague a couple of years ago. Overwhelmingly, though, my positive friends live tremendously healthy and empowered lives, and they affect my life every day in the best possible way.

In what way?
Well, my first major relationship was with someone who was positive. We were together for two years. I virtually went from the closet straight into this relationship. He was ten years older and twenty years positive, so I guess you could say it was kind of zero-to-sixty! It was a true adventure, though. We had a blast.

Did you encounter any challenges?
I think both of us wondered, at our own times and for our own reasons, if we were really right for the other person—and our different statuses probably played a part in that. Looking back, we were just projecting our insecurities onto each other. All things considered, I think we navigated the dynamic remarkably well, especially considering we were both a little nuts. We’re still friends. And we’re still nuts.

I read your recently published memoir, 88×50 (Kirkus Indie Book of the Month). I thoroughly enjoyed joining you vicariously on your adventures driving in a Hyundai around the United States to perform free recitals on the eighty-eights to underprivileged communities. Where can others read your tome?
It’s available on all digital formats—Kindle, Nook, and iBooks—as well as in an audiobook format on iTunes and Amazon. It can also be streamed on Spotify.

I know you often perform at New York’s GMHC, too. What sparks you to volunteer your time and talent?

Photo by Scion Fullana
Photo by Scion Fullana

I saw Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart on Broadway, twice, and it inspired me to do something for GMHC. [Larry co-founded GMHC in 1982.] You know, Ruby [he clears his throat], I think of volunteering as a privilege and a responsibility. We have to look out for each other, and it’s so easy to lose motivation when we’re at our computers trying to outwit each other on social media.

Oh, drats. Don’t get me started on that horrid FaceBook, Twitter, and the rest of the muck, Adam. Call me an old fogey, but I think we’ve lost the intimacy. [He smiles, smirks, and squints.] Whom do you consider a hero in the AIDS epidemic?
Larry Kramer. Fearless, selfless, and incredibly talented as an artist, we owe so much to the fires he lit, from founding Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP, to his brilliant body of work. I’m so happy to see more people recognizing his role in history and coming to his work, with the recent revival of The Normal Heart in New York and the HBO movie version of the play, as well as his prophetic and scathing book, Faggots, which I think more people are reading these days.

I must tell you, when I met my boyfriend on the Christopher Street pier in New York, that’s the book he was reading. I was like, “Hey, I just bought that, too. Want my number?” [His eyes beam and Adam shrugs with a grin.]

Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected]