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‘Frasier’ actor to play with a piano master

“I have absolutely no anxiety” when acting David Hyde Pierce says he’s hoping he can get same point with playing

“I have absolutely no anxiety” when acting, David Hyde Pierce says, and he’s hoping he can get to the same point with playing the piano.

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w/ David Hyde Pierce

When: 1 p.m. May 27

Where: Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan

Admission: Free

Info: (312) 294-3000,

Updated: June 29, 2012 8:36AM

It’s hard to think of him as anyone other than natty fusspot psychiatrist Niles Crane. But the character David Hyde Pierce portrayed so memorably on the long-running and still-in-syndication sitcom “Frasier” reveals only a portion of his artistic range.

The Emmy- and Tony-winning actor also has serious stage chops, having co-starred in, among several other shows, the Broadway hit “Spamalot,” but also is a deft tickler of ivories. That’s a pianist, for those unfamiliar with music jargon. Hyde Pierce, who recently turned 53, has played since age 8.

On May 27, as part of Symphony Center’s three-week “Keys to the City” piano festival, he’ll perform the world premiere of a classical duet — by composer Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky — with renowned keyboard virtuoso Emanuel Ax.

During a recent phone conversation, Hyde Pierce spoke about piano’s influence on his life and career:

Q. Your former “Frasier” co-star Kelsey Grammer once told Esquire magazine, “Prayer is when you talk to God, meditation is when you’re listening, and piano allows you to do both at the same time.”

A. That’s interesting. I’ve never heard that. Certainly playing the piano can be like meditation. Like with meditation, you can play the piano, and your concentration can be all squirrely. But if you keep at it, things come into focus, and suddenly you’re right there in the moment, and you’re actually hearing what you’re playing and great stuff happens. Sometimes it’s just a brief second. Sometimes it’s a whole section of the piece or a whole morning’s practice. But I think meditation is very much like that, too. You go at it, you practice it every day and try to find that place where you touch ground.

Q. Does playing the piano help you gain clarity in other aspects of life?

A. I’m getting ready to do this musical [“The Landing,” in New York], and playing the piano has nothing to do directly with the musical. But every day I start the day with a Bach prelude and fugue. Or I’ll be working my way through the Beethoven piano sonatas. It’s not like I said, “Oh, this is how I prepare for doing a show, but there is something [helpful] about organizing your mind, sort of fine-tuning your senses, linking up what you hear and what you imagine with what your body does. All the stuff you need as an actor is stuff that you also need as a pianist.

Q. Is that something you realized early on?

A. Part of the joy I got out of playing the piano was [because of] that, even if I didn’t realize it. When I play the piano, my most fulfilling times are when I am accompanying someone. Whether it’s doing what I’m going to do in Chicago or accompanying an instrumentalist or a singer — that’s when I feel most like I’m taken out of myself, and that it’s really just about the connection between the people and how the music comes to life because of that connection.

Q.Does accompanying someone give you as much satisfaction as acting?

A. Well, no. It’s a different thing. If I’m going to perform, I have more gifts as an actor than I do as a pianist. So I enjoy playing, but it is very rare for me to play in public, to perform for people. I will do it for my own enjoyment, but that’s not something that I’m as comfortable doing out in the world.

Q. Is playing the piano with someone like Emanuel Ax like playing tennis with a pro? Does he improve your game?

A. Completely. Absolutely it is. In the same way that being onstage with great actors is. I think that group we had on “Frasier” is a wonderful example. Everybody raised everybody [else’s] game on that show. When you play the piano, the sound that comes out is ideally what you’re imagining — what you’re hearing inside in that moment before it happens. And when you’re sitting next to Emanuel Ax, playing, your ear hears his touch, and the warmth and depth and amazingness of his sound. And sometimes, through no fault of your own, you come close to matching it, just because you’re playing the same piece together. It’s very magical.

Q. At one point you came to realize that you’d never make a living as a concert pianist. Did that realization cause more disappointment or relief?

A. It was a gradual thing. It wasn’t like, “Oh, my God, my dreams are shattered.” Acting was the same way. People always asked me, “What roles do you want to play?” I said, “I have no idea.” I just sort of took things as they came.

Q. Were you encouraged to study music by your parents?

A. They were incredibly supportive [but] absolutely petrified that I would try to become a professional musician. They thought it was such an insecure profession. So when I called them from college to say, “Good news, I’m not going into music,” their relief was temporary. Because then I said, “I’m going into acting.”

Q. When did you discover pianist-comedian Victor Borge?

A. Well, we had his record “Comedy and Music.” And everything about it spoke to me, rang a bell. I just connected with his sense of humor, which was very dry and droll. And silly sometimes. And crazy. But then he would also play, and he was such a splendid pianist and fine musician. It’s like I got my whole life in that one package: my love of music and my love of performing and of comedy.

Q. Were you a funny kid or did that develop later on?

A. [Laughs] Uh, everyone you talk to would say I was a funny kid, but they might not all mean the same thing.

Q. Is your upcoming Chicago appearance your first performance at Orchestra Hall?

A. [Slowly, as if just realizing it] Yeeaaah.

Q.Is that daunting at all?

A. Well, to tell you the truth, when you said that a huge wave of anxiety washed over me, because I hadn’t thought about it in those terms. Everybody’s going to be very nice and friendly, and it is not a high-pressure situation. Except that I’m very aware of the difference between when I perform onstage as a pianist and when I perform as an actor. When I perform as an actor, I have absolutely no anxiety of any kind, ever. It feels like my natural environment. I’m probably happier there than I am in real life. Playing the piano is a different thing, and one of the things I am working on as I approach this is being able to have the freedom to enjoy the process and also the freedom that really allows for the music to come through.

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