As prodigy matures, his light still burns bright

LOCAL MEMBERS of the Piano Technicians Guild, who 13 years ago logged 700 hours rebuilding that old Stieff baby grand for the shockingly talented baby pianist Jermaine Gardner - he was only 4 at the time - will be pleased to know that both are thriving. The piano fills a third of the front room of the Gardner house, off The Alameda in Northeast Baltimore, and the other night Jermaine sat behind it to play Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 18, the allegro. He performed it wonderfully. I felt lucky to have been there.

I've heard Jermaine Gardner before, and he seems to get better as he gets older and more confident.

Anyone who has seen or heard this young man, now 17, will not be surprised to hear that he can handle one of Beethoven's challenging sonatas, noted for quick delays between the right-hand chords and left-hand octaves. Jermaine knows the piece by heart, but sometimes runs his fingers over his Braille sheet music to refresh his memory.

Jermaine Gardner splashed onto the local scene when he was barely out of diapers. Once the Baltimore media reported his phenomenal talent, it seemed that every television network and national magazine wanted him. Jermaine appeared on "The Today Show," "Good Morning America," "Live With Regis and Kathie Lee," "48 Hours," "The 700 Club" and "ABC World News." He played for Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush. He got to meet Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles and Cher. The Piano Technicians Guild gave him the rebuilt piano. All of that happened when Jermaine was young - 4 and 5 - and, because of his age and visual impairment, he left a lasting impression.

He has not let up, either.

He's a genuine prodigy who did not burn out at 12. The keyboard is still his passion. He's won competitions. He wants to go to college, then be a concert pianist, a teacher, composer and recording artist. "I like it all," he says, when I ask for his musical preferences. "I like classical - early music and baroque, playing on period instruments - harpsichord and forte piano - and I like jazz and hip-hop, too."

He did the smart thing, attending the Baltimore School for the Arts and studying under Allen Good. He performs often, including each Sunday at the grand Huber United Memorial Church of Christ in Govans and the Precious Fountain Missionary Baptist Church in Edgewood. If you can get a ticket - that's a big if at this point, I understand - you can catch Jermaine in concert Sunday afternoon at Towson Unitarian Universalist Church. Jermaine has played at fund-raisers before, but this is the first one he's doing for himself.

He's doing it to raise money for college.

He wants to attend the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio or the Peabody Conservatory here. Tuition and room and board at Oberlin, his first choice, could run as high as $37,000 annually, says his mother, Jacqui, and the Gardners are not counting on scholarships to cover the total cost. That's a lot of scratch over four years - and maybe more, if Jermaine pursues a graduate degree in historical performance.

Who knows? Maybe Jermaine Gardner's performance Sunday will be historical. He'll do some Gershwin, some Ellington, some Joplin, some Debussy and Bach. And he'll do that Beethoven sonata he performed so wonderfully on the old Stieff in his house the other night.

Life beyond the Ravens TJI cultural correspondent Joey Amalfitano reports in again:

"Everyone made a fuss about how the Super Bowl showed that Baltimore is a first-class city, but I was feeling pretty good about things around here anyway.

"Super Bowl weekend, I went to an excellent jazz concert at Evergreen House (in the stables), then went with my son to the Manet show at the Walters. The show is first-class, really world-class. Did you know the Walters is the only place it'll be shown in North America? The nude statue in the foyer was bathed in purple light. Then I went to the Charles and saw that 'Crouching Tiger' movie. Very good. I went down near Cross Street Market, to Sobo Cafe, which has local art on the wall, pretty good food for the price and a nice atmosphere. I did manage to see the second half of the football game, and that kickoff return by Jermaine Lewis. That's nice the Ravens won."

Activists on alert If, by chance, your New Year's resolutions include becoming a card-carrying, think-globally/act-locally activist, there is plenty of that sort of thing in this town. A "Baltimore Activist Alert" goes out every week from all-purpose activist Max Obuszewski. Here's the latest:

Today: Viva House and the Baltimore Campaign to End the Death Penalty will hold a vigil at the Maryland Penitentiary. Meet from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. at Madison Street and Fallsway.

Wednesday: Discuss "Baltimore's Challenge to Military Spending: Past and Future" at Cathedral Church of the Incarnation, University Parkway and North Charles Street, 7:30 p.m.

Thursday and Friday: Call the White House comment line (202-456-1111) to urge support for human rights and democracy in East Timor and Indonesia.

Friday: The Baltimore Emergency Response Network will protest economic sanctions against Iraq from 9:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. at Lombard and Charles streets. Concerned residents can lobby Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes at his Baltimore office from 10 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Call Max at 410-323-7200.

Sanctuary from cell phones Last week, I beefed about loud cell-phone users at BWI and the need to rope them off in their own waiting areas. This Just In: Amtrak is increasing the number of "quiet cars" for Metroliner passengers, giving them sanctuary from cell phones, pagers and computers. That does it. Next time, I take the train to Elmira.

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