David Calling

The David Pryce-Jones blog.

Watching Derek


Faith in human nature is hard to maintain in this world of daily brutalities, but now and again someone or something restores it. In the latest instance, I went to a concert in my local town of Brecon, not the centre of Wales let alone the universe. But it has what it calls Theatr Brycheiniog, which is Welsh, as you will easily gather, for Brecon Theater, and a huge modern hall it is too for a town like this.

Derek Paravicini was to play the piano. To declare an interest, he is the son of friends and neighbors, but that does not make him any less of an extraordinary prodigy.  Born prematurely, he was given too much oxygen and this left him blind and impaired mentally. Aged thirty now, he speaks and responds like a little boy and it is not clear if he is really following the thread of the conversation. But when he was still very small, this handicapped child forced his way to a piano, sat down and played it, as he has done pretty well every day ever since. He has total recall of all the music he has ever heard, and can improvise on it for fun in his own style up and down the octaves. In this concert, people in the audience were invited to shout out what they would like to hear him play, and he could do it every time, playing pieces ranging from Saint-Saens to popular hits. The brilliance is incredible, and he can’t see the keyboard! Tokyo TV was filming this concert. Derek has played several times in the United States, and soon he is appearing with Mike Wallace on Sixty Minutes.

Adam Ockelford has sacrificed his career as a music teacher — and his private life as well — to make this phenomenon possible. He looks after Derek in matters big and small, travelling, rehearsing, explaining, and guiding him with a gentle hand on and off the concert stage. He’s even written a book about Derek with the satisfying title In the Key of Genius.  As far as I can understand it, Derek is like the hero of the film The Rain Man, autistic, so his performance is also part of his condition.

The Brecon Theatre was sold out that night, and we were all moved. Derek is not a freak show, and the reason is because Derek’s life-long pain and suffering has found an expression that gives amazement and delight to his listeners. Surely the real purpose of art is not to rub our noses in the ceaseless brutalities of the world, as most modern artists do, but instead to make something human and life-enhancing out of them. That’s an idea to make Christmas and the New Year that much the happier.    


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