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Piano's warm welcome a fitting tribute at Palladium

Paul Stavros said he was not a good piano student as a child, but he had a master of the keyboard, Dick Hyman, to do the playing for him Tuesday night at the Palladium Theater.

Stavros, founding executive director of the Palladium, was honored by the board of trustees and other patrons who gave the theater an $80,000 Steinway grand piano in his name. Hyman gave a recital from the great American songbook of the Gershwin brothers, Stephen Sondheim, Fats Waller and more.

It was almost seven years ago that Stavros set up an office in the former Christian Science church, built in 1925, and began to fulfill his dream of a midsize performing arts venue. Today, the Palladium is an invaluable community resource, providing a top-level yet affordable facility for groups ranging from high school theater troupes to the Encore chamber music series to famous artists such as Hyman.

Chairman William R. Hough presented Stavros with a plaque honoring his "unselfish devotion of time, talent and love" to the Palladium.

"This is a most humbling experience," said Stavros, who resigned as executive director last year but continues on the board. He described his unpaid work as "a labor of love."

Venice resident Hyman was a classmate at Columbia University with Gus Stavros, father of Paul. The pianist helped select the Palladium's new instrument at the Steinway factory in New York in July.

"When you choose a piano, it's something like choosing a bride," Hyman said, demonstrating the beautiful sound before the concert. Later, he wittily introduced his wife, Julia, in the front row, before playing the Sondheim song, You Must Meet My Wife.

Hyman, an unpretentious but commanding performer, began with sparkling arrangements of the Gershwins' S' Wonderful and Someone to Watch Over Me. At 77, he is an incredibly nimble player, displaying unerring marksmanship in fleet runs in another Gershwin standard, A Foggy Day (in London Town). A highlight was his probing rendition of Sondheim's melancholy classic, Pretty Women.

The 9-foot Steinway almost seemed to play itself in his effortless style, even in a daunting piece of pianistic technique like Waller's Handful of Keys.

Hyman hauled out delightful music from off the beaten track, including a novelty piece called Southern Charms and his goodbye and good riddance to Hurricane Ivan, Gone With the Wind, which was not the theme from the movie but an old pop song.

Hyman took requests, including a complex yet totally spontaneous version of Kurt Weill's September Song. Playing of such verve and grace provided a fitting benediction for the Palladium's new piano.

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