Chicago lawyer’s second act: Playing piano on the concert stage

Okay, so . . . maybe you didn’t turn out to be the next Vladimir Horowitz.

Sure, you loved the piano and you practiced like a demon all through college. You could churn out a mean Beethoven sonata and you even gave a recital or three. But you never quite made it to Carnegie Hall, and in your 20s you had to admit you just weren’t headed for the glamorous life of a globe-trotting pianist, dazzling audiences from Paris to New York. So, like most of us, you heaved a sigh, got a grown-up job, and packed up those dreams forever.

(Michael Goss/Michael Goss) - Pianist Mark Damisch.

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Unless, of course, you happen to be Mark Damisch.

A settled, successful Chicago lawyer and family man, Damisch hadn’t even touched a keyboard in nearly 20 years when he decided, at the ripe age of 43, that it might be kind of cool to shake out his fingers, squeeze into a tuxedo, and set out on the international piano circuit — just like that, and completely on his own.

Crazy? Maybe. It’s hard to find a more brutally competitive profession than classical music, and making it as a soloist takes not just brilliance, endless work and hard-driving professionalism, but also a very thick skin. There’s barely enough room for the geniuses, let alone middle-aged do-it-yourselfers. But since the summer Damisch decided to elbow his way onto that elite stage, he’s given close to a thousand recitals around the world, won admiring reviews, and raised over a million dollars for charity.

Oh — and he’s done all this in his spare time. He has a law firm to run, after all.

“I’m a little like Forrest Gump,” says Damisch, now 57, who will be in town Monday night to launch his latest tour with a concert at the Russian Cultural Centre. “I’m not too smart — but I keep showing up.”

Damisch’s “just do it” approach to music should perhaps not be a surprise. This is a guy, after all, who announced at his first piano lesson— at age 7 — that he wanted to learn Beethoven’s “Emperor” concerto. He studied piano through high school and college (though he never majored in music), and by his late teens was building a career as a performer.

“Like everybody else, I started at the bottom,” he says. “I played at senior centers, churches, pretty much any place that would take me.” By his early 20s he was on his first world tour, and seemed committed to a life in music. But terrible bouts of stage fright — as well as the harsh realities of the classical world — made him reconsider.

“Music is a very unforgiving profession,” he says. “You get to the top of your game, you have an off night, the next thing you know you’ve got a bad review and your career is in tatters.”

So at 25 he did the sensible thing. He quit the piano, got a law degree from Northwestern, became a public prosecutor, started a family, was elected mayor of the Village of Northbrook, and eventually opened his own law firm.

But when 2000 rolled around, he decided to try “something cool” to mark the new millennium. So he set up a dozen concerts for himself — and discovered, he says, his “niche.” He organized another international tour the next year, and the next, and now plays 70 to 80 concerts a year. Accompanied on voice and piano by his daughters Katherine, 23, and Alexandra, 18, he’s been around the planet about 16 times, playing everywhere from Hanoi to Hiroshima to St. Petersburg — where they’ll be performing an ambitious program of Prokofiev, Copland and Grieg next month.

But what’s perhaps most remarkable is that virtually all Damisch’s concerts have been for charity. He and his daughters have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight human trafficking, help blind children in Africa, support breast cancer research, grant end-of-life wishes, aid victims of the 2011 Japanese tsunami, and even get the Elgin Marbles returned to Greece. After their recital here Monday, they’ll be flying to Scandinavia and Russia for a month-long tour of concerts benefiting, among others, the homeless in Copenhagen and orphans in St. Petersburg.

“I grew up during the Vietnam War,” he says, “and had a lot of negative feelings about that country. But when I went there to play, the concert was completely sold out, jammed with young people. And at the end of the program we sang ‘All You Need Is Love’ with the audience, and everybody there knew the words and sang along. The feeling in the hall was electrifying. That’s a long way from the Vietnam War.”

But before you dust off that old piano, quit your job, and reinvent yourself as a freelance cultural ambassador, be aware that the DIY concert life “isn’t all roses and balloons,” Damisch cautions.

“I set all the concerts up myself,” he says. “I’m my own agent. I decide where I want to go, pick the dates out, and start scouring the venues in a particular location. Then I ask the venue if they’d be willing to donate it, particularly if it’s for a charity event, and then I’ll either find the charity myself or I’ll find a promoter.”

And he pays all his own expenses as well, from hotels to airfare; any proceeds from the concerts go to the charities. And between practicing, studying, and arranging the complex logistics of each tour, it’s essentially a second full-time job.

“The law practice is there to pay the bills,” he says. “But I have to be at the piano pretty much every night.”

Brookes is a freelance writer.

Damisch will appear Monday at 6:30 p.m. at the Russian Cultural Centre, 1825 Phelps Pl. NW. The concert is free; for reservations, e-mail or call 202-265-3840.

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