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Beaverton resident and pianist Philip Mandel will celebrate the release of his CD on Feb. 20 at the Portland Piano Company



Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Philip Mandel plays songs from his CD, Pathétique, on a Steinway & Sons piano he inherited from his parents at his home in Beaverton.The New York Philharmonic begins playing Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, and sitting in the middle of the orchestra section, 15-year-old Philip Mandel feels like his life has finally begun. It’s summer, but the music is a spring day and Mandel is entranced.

“I literally feel like I was born the day I heard Mahler’s First Symphony. I dearly wish I knew that date, because to me, that’s far more important than my birthday,” the Beaverton resident said. “From that point on, my parents couldn’t get me away from the piano.”

Mandel, 61, began playing the piano at age 5, following in the footsteps of his older siblings. He grew up in Long Island, New York, and had a couple different teachers before his parents found Adam Kapuscinski, a man who Mandel greatly credits with his skill today. Called Mr. Kapu by his students, he was Mandel’s teacher for years, and was still his teacher the day Mandel heard Mahler and everything changed.

“After that, I practiced easily two hours a day — I’m a teenager. I’m in high school and my friends are chasing girls, going to movies, going out for burgers and fries — and I’m at home practicing,” Mandel said. “I simply got a hankering for music like I’d never had before.”Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Though his parents were the instigators of his musical pursuits, Philip Mandel wasn't allowed to go to music school. Instead he became an engineer, a profession he retired from eight years ago.

Mandel went from reluctantly practicing for 30 minutes a day to happily practicing hour after hour. There were times he’d be in front of the keys until midnight, long after everyone else had fallen asleep. He’d finally drag himself to bed, exhausted, and be late for school the next morning. But nobody, neither his parents nor Mr. Kapu, mentioned the change, and Mandel didn’t bring it up — he just went on practicing.

“I can safely say that (Mr. Kapu) was the only teacher I had in my youth who challenged me,” Mandel said. “He saw my talent, so from the earliest I can remember being at the piano with him, he started testing my limits and pushing me to improve my technique and to take on more and more challenging repertoire.”

While his parents had also been some of his biggest musical supporters, when it came time to choose a college, music school was off the table. As World War II refugees from Vienna, Mandel’s parents were concerned with security and stability, goals not guaranteed by life as a musician.

“Starving and musician go hand in hand, so (my dad) wanted me to be a doctor, and basically we compromised on engineering, which was my first love before I had fallen in love with music,” said Mandel. “There are a lot of engineers who are musicians and vice versa, because music is basically mathematical. You’ve got a certain tempo and you’ve got quarter notes and eighth notes and groupings of notes. ... It’s just sort of an artistic form of math.”Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - This Steinway & Sons piano is the very same one that Philip Mandel's parents bought for him as a boy.

With a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a master’s from Northwestern University, Mandel, now retired, had a long and successful career in technological engineering. But through it all, music remained.

As Mandel plays, he sits with his back perfectly straight and his fingers expertly curled, the result of years of work under a detail-oriented teacher. His fingers move swiftly over the keys, and when his left hand rests for a moment, he brings it up to his face as if to adjust his glasses, before it strikes down again. As the music speeds up, his eyebrows rise and his forehead wrinkles. On occasion, he leans into the piano, back still straight, and leans out again as the music shifts. His piano, a 1950 Steinway, is the same baby grand his parents bought him all those years ago.

“When I play on it, I feel a deep connection to my past,” said Mandel, noting that both Mr. Kapu and his father’s fingers graced the keys. “My past is pretty much contained in that piano.”

Reaching the audience

When Mandel plays shows today, he tries to evoke emotions from the audience the same way emotions built in him when he heard Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. This, he said, is what music is all about — making people feel something, anything.

“People are always searching for a way to get in touch with their feelings, and sometimes they have to do something like go to a movie or ride a roller coaster. Another way to do it is to sit and just let the music by itself move you,” he said. “All you need to do is let Beethoven and Chopin and Debussy sing to you and you’ll get all the emotions you could ever want.”Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Philip Mandel began playing piano at age 5, and at 61 years old, he said he loves it more today than ever before.

In September, when Mandel practiced for his Sack Lunch recital at the Old Church in Portland, he did so with this in mind. He hoped he might reach one audience member, make one person feel something.

“Every musician, whether an oboist, violinist or pianist, brings an idea about how they want to sound at their instrument,” said Harold Gray, a retired Portland State University music professor and Mandel’s teacher leading up to his performance. “It’s communicating something that moves people that is the most important thing.”

When more than 200 people arrived for the Wednesday event that typically sees about 75 spectators, Mandel was the first person there to feel moved. A standing ovation halfway through his performance proved the audience was invested, as well, and another standing ovation at the end was more than he had ever expected.

“And while I’m standing there basking in this appreciation from the audience, in the back of my mind, I’m on my knees praising and thanking both my parents and Mr. Kapuscinski,” Mandel said. “I was thinking, ‘I don’t know if there’s a heaven and I don’t know if they can see what’s happening, but I dearly wish they could see me now,’ because all of this is a result of my parents’ nurturing and financial investment, and Mr. Kapuscinski’s expert and tender teaching. I stand on the shoulders of giants.”

Following the show, Mandel decided the time was right to make a CD, as he was well-practiced and polished. By the end of October, he was recording at the Portland Piano Company, and the result, “Pathétique,” is available today, to be celebrated during a release party at the store on Feb. 20 at 6:30 p.m.

At 15 years old, Mandel sat in awe as music spoke to him for the first time. The result was a lifelong appreciation for music and the determination to make someone feel something the way he did on that summer day in New York City all those years ago.Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Philip Mandel reacts as if he hears the roaring applause from the audience after playing the piano at his home in Beaverton.

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What

Philip Mandel's release party for his CD, "Pathétique."

When

Friday, Feb. 20, 6:30 p.m.

Where

Portland Piano Company, 711 S.W. 14th Ave., Portland

Cost

Free and open to the public, no RSVP required.

Additional Info

Mandel is available for recitals, weddings, parties and other events. Visit his website for more information, and for information about where to purchase his CD.

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