Far(nham) out there — Pianist brings original take to classic repertoire

Photos courtesy of Jason Farnham. Playing a toy piano is one of several tricks up Jason Farnham’s sleeve in his quirky concert tour. He performs at Christ Lutheran Church in Soldotna at 7 p.m. Friday.

Photos courtesy of Jason Farnham. Playing a toy piano is one of several tricks up Jason Farnham’s sleeve in his quirky concert tour. He performs at Christ Lutheran Church in Soldotna at 7 p.m. Friday.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

It’s not that Beethoven didn’t know what he was doing. He had his thing. It worked for him.

It’s just that Jason Farnham’s thing is not Beethoven’s thing. He can play classical music. It’s nice and all. Audiences are familiar with it. But there’s no originality when playing the classical standards. And Farnham has too much originality for it to not come out somewhere, whether in writing his own music, or at least putting a spin on existing compositions — like “Fur Crying Out Loud Elise, Let’s Dance!”

“It’s definitely more fun for me. I’d rather stand and play ‘Fur Elise’ with techno drumbeats in the background, rather than playing it straight. I learned those songs when I was younger but I don’t feel comfortable playing a concert of just pure classical music, because that makes me actually nervous. It’s note for note. The audience is expecting you to play these certain notes, and it’s a lot of pressure, so that’s why I like to mix them up a little bit because then you can be free to do some of your own thing,” he said.

Farnham, of California, started playing piano under a private tutor when he was young.

Farnham playing-piano-upside-down“I was classically trained, I learned how to read music and play classical music and sight read and all of that. Then when I got to high school I joined a jazz band and I had no idea how to do anything because that music is chord charts. It’s completely different,” he said.

So he began studying that style and continued playing through college, where he got a minor in music and majored in audio production.

After that he started writing his own instrumental piano compositions, and in 2008 started performing piano concerts. At first he modeled the concerts along the lines of Jim Brickman and George Winston. Again, they had their thing. It seemed to work for them.

“I would think, ‘Wow, they were getting gigs,’” Farnham said.

But again, it wasn’t quite Farnham’s thing.

“I realized it was too similar and I wanted to change it up a little bit,” he said.

So he started pulling from all his roots — classical music from his early training, jazz from his high school and college experience, and all the other influences along the way.

“I went to high school in the 1990s and I had a friend that was into U2 and Depeche Mode and all these other cool synthesizer bands, so I really got into that, as well. And I started trying to bring a little bit of that element to my show. That’s where the remixes come in.”

All this filtered through Farnham’s personality means there’s also a lot of humor in the show. He does a bit on a toy piano, a la Schroeder from “Peanuts,” and plays another lying upside down.

“I started going on YouTube and seeing what other people were doing and I Googled ‘Person playing upside down’ and I found somebody. So I thought, ‘Yeah, let me try that.’ And that wasn’t too bad,” Farnham said. “Then I started looking at the tunes I already knew, like ‘Fur Elise,’ and thinking, ‘What can I do to make it my own?’ It’s a lot of fun. I’ll get people afterward asking, ‘How do you do that upside down thing?’ People seem to really connect with (the concert).’”

Farnham performed for the Seldovia Arts Council in 2011 and was invited back this summer, so he figured he’s make a tour out of the visit. He performs in Seward on Thursday, Soldotna on Friday, Seldovia on Saturday and Homer on Friday. He said he enjoyed his last visit to Alaska and is looking forward to adding to his memories on this one.

Last trip he particularly enjoyed the water taxi ride from Homer to Seldovia, lugging his toy piano in a big box along with him.

“Everybody was traveling very practically — backpacks and duffle bags as backpacks — and I have this big box,” he said. “People ask, ‘What’s in that?’ And I say, ‘It’s a toy piano.’ ‘What?’”

At one point, looking out across the water, he saw a scene that looked exactly like a painting by Bob Ross — of happy trees and clouds fame. That’s fitting, as Ross is to painting what Farnham is to music — learn the standards, use what’s successful but don’t be afraid to put your own little happy twist on things.

“It’s fun,” he said. “People seem to enjoy it, and I have a good time.”

Farnham will perform at 7 p.m. Friday at Christ Lutheran Church in Soldotna. Admission is $10 at the door, and free for kids 10 and under.

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