Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive


In John Bell Young's head, the soul of an artist coexists happily with the soul of a salesman.

Young, an acclaimed pianist, widely traveled teacher and enthusiastic ambassador of music, will appear in recital at 2 p.m. Sunday in the Marly Room of St. Petersburg's Museum of Fine Arts.

Along with selections from the standard repertory _ Chopin, Liszt, Debussy, Scriabin _ Young will play the music of two men famous for entirely non-musical reasons: ABC's 20/20 co-anchor Hugh Downs and German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

Young's skill as a salesman _ "Don't forget, I spent 10 years selling real estate in New York" _ was a key to tracking down the works of both men and exposing them to a curious public.

Through a mutual friend, he contacted Downs and persuaded him to okay the performance of his symphonic work, Elegiac Prelude. Later Downs offered another, lighter piece, An Old Familiar Air Which Has Its Own Tuxedo and Will Travel.

Young's first attempt to lay hands on Downs' scores were unsuccessful, but he says he finally succeeded through the efforts of friend and folksinger Bill Crofut, who lives near Downs in the Berkshires.

In a letter to Young, Downs recalls hearing his parents play the violin, cornet and piano as he was growing up, and, at about 14, developing "the arrogant idea that I might create music, even though I had never mastered an instrument."

Downs is known today not only for 20/20, but also for hosting the PBS production Live From Lincoln Center. However, he has done little, if anything, to publicize his own musical efforts.

Young calls Downs' Elegiac Prelude, written for full orchestra and transcribed for piano by Marvin Rosenberg of Spring Hill, "stately" and "diaphanous." He cites some modest structural weaknesses in the piece, but calls Downs "a composer of considerable talent and experience."

Young raves about the Old Familiar Air, however, calling it "a charmer, fun to play," and deserving of a permanent place in the piano literature.

Young's discovery and subsequent recordings of the music of Nietzsche also resulted from intellectual curiosity and determination. Before he could accomplish that, however, his career in real estate had to end. It did, when the high-flying '80s came back to Earth.

"I was quite good at selling real estate, and I made a good living," Young says, "but I never really liked it very much." By 1987, "I was burning out, and I became afraid I was going to get locked into selling until I was 90."

About the same time, Young says, he lost a substantial amount of money in a deal, and his decision was made. "It may sound like an indulgence, but I decided I wanted to leave something of myself behind."

Back to music; back to the piano.

Young moved to France, where he supported himself "with difficulty. I had hoped to do concerts there, but that turned out to be a little naive."

A quiet concert schedule gave him time to practice, long and hard, and to pursue his real musical passion: Developing a unique repertory, one that highlights the many links among the arts.

In France, Young discovered the music of Friedrich Nietzsche, the great German philosopher who loved romantic music and composed a respectable but unknown body of work for the piano.

The result was Newport Classics' The Piano Music of Friedrich Nietzsche, a well-received recording in which Young plays 14 solo works and is joined by Constance Keene in two pieces for four hands. In a second recording for Sony Classics, The Music of Friedrich Nietzsche, Young was joined by the first-rank lyric tenor John Aler for 16 songs.

Both discs, and especially the idea behind them, got Young a lot of attention. He and Nietzsche were written up in Time, the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. The philosopher's compositions are of somewhat uneven quality, Young acknowledges, but he argues they should not be compared to the music of Schumann, Beethoven or Schubert. Some works are very good, he says, and all have value as a means to better understand the many lines that connect the classic arts.

Young has lectured at the Juilliard School, Brown University, the University of South Florida and the Leningrad Conservatory in Russia, where he is considered an important interpreter of the music of the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin.

He recalls winning the 1985 New York Chopin/Kosciuszko Foundation Competition, a noteworthy if not widely known event: "I had just closed a real estate deal, and I had a check for a lot of money in my pocket. ... These were the Reagan years, and I was a real New York yuppie. We felt great, like we could do anything."

The competition was in New York's Steinway Hall, and Young recalls that he told the judges he would have time to play only two pieces. "On that day," Young says, "I did not care."

He won anyway.

But those fanciful days are a memory, and Young, at 43, now finds himself living in Spring Hill, trying to get his musical career under way in the Tampa Bay area.

His former teacher and current collaborator, Constance Keene, herself a former winner of the prestigious Naumberg piano competition, said Young had and still has the talent to establish a career in the concert hall.

"He is a most talented pianist," she said from her home in New York. "He communicates with real passion."

But as his teacher years ago, Keene said she thought Young was unwilling to focus his career so narrowly. "John has so many interests," she said. "He writes well and has so many opinions _ informed opinions. He speaks a bunch of languages and assimilates like a sponge. I never did think his ambition was to be a great pianist."

Young has no quarrel with his former teacher's assessment. He attended Oberlin Conservatory and the Mannes College of Music in New York, but did not graduate from either.

He said his studies were interrupted by three retinal detachments, "and the fact I just wanted to do something else ... I was impatient to do things in the world."

Despite his impatience, and his decadelong foray into the non-musical world of real estate, Young has studied and coached with an impressive list of pianists, including Keene, Karl Ulrich Schnabel, Ernst Levy, Olga Barabini and Garrick Ohlsson.

"I have no regrets," he says. "I've been lucky to have had a very interesting life.

"I do want to play concerts, but not 100 every year. We don't all want to be superstar performers. There's more to it than that.

"Teaching, writing and investigating the things I love _ that's what I want to do."

About Sunday's concert

John Bell Young, piano, assisting artists Crystal Cattar-Bedan, soprano, and Vladimir Kholkhov, piano.

The Marly Room.

St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts.

2 p.m. Sunday, July 28, 2 p.m.

Tickets $7 in advance; $8 at door

Music by Nietzsche, Chopin, Granados, Debussy, Scriabin, Liszt, Garcia-Lorca, Downs

Phone: 896-2667