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Embracing Joy

Karen Psiaki of Summerset, SD, a Friend of SDPB since 2006, and her friend James (Jim) MacInnes, a 90-year old classical pianist and conductor, met in 2009 at Black Hills Piano Gallery in Rapid City. A saleswoman, computer programmer and singer, Karen relocated to the Black Hills from New Jersey in 2006. Prior to moving to Rapid City and directing the Black Hills Chamber Orchestra for 15 years, Jim led the well-traveled life of a classical composer and musician. Fulbright study in Germany. A teaching position at UCLA-Los Angeles. A season with the San Francisco Opera. Assistant conductor of the National Ballet. In the 1970s, he was music director and conductor of the Lake Charles Civic Symphony in Louisiana.

Jim graduated from Julliard.

“One of my last concerts there was the Beethoven Ninth,” says Jim. “When we finished that performance, I felt I’d achieved the top. Beethoven has the joy theme embrace the other melody in a double fugue, and it was almost uncontrollably brilliant and wild. You can’t get above or even equal to the Beethoven Ninth.”

His teachers have included Walther Pfitzner, a well-known composer from Black Hills State Teachers College (now BHSU). “He was better than any teacher I had at Juilliard,” says Jim. “My second great piano teacher was Julius Herford, a refugee from Germany, who taught Robert Shaw. And my third greatest teacher was Richard Lert, for conducting. I was very lucky to have great teachers.”

Back in 2006, Jim became Karen’s accompanist, teacher, and friend. Together they performed programs at venues like the Lead Opera House. “It was great when I met her because we found we had the same kind of musical background, interests and tastes,” says Jim. Karen appreciated that Jim embraced enjoyment over technical nit-picking.

“The greatest joy to me in music is making a beautiful sound,” says Karen.

“When two people can collaborate and they both have their focus on that goal, then even the rehearsal time is a pleasure. We did some of our best collaborative work struggling through songs together in his teaching studio.  Particular victories of note for me were Schubert’s “Du bist die Ruh” and Brahms’ “Die Mainacht,” “Der Tod, das ist die kühle Nacht,” “An die Nachtigall”, and a short set of Brahms’ songs based upon Serbian folk tunes.”

Loss of eyesight and a fall led Jim to assisted living, where he has been since 2017. Arthritis means he no longer plays the piano. Prior to COVID quarantining, Karen would visit Jim and perform at Good Samaritan Society in New Underwood. Jim happened to be watching GP at the Met’s Madame Butterfly on SDPB during Karen’s visit and together they absorbed and critiqued. “I did provide a bit of a play-by-play as to the staging and set design,” says Karen. “Jim was very struck by the idea of using a puppet as a representation for Butterfly’s child.  He extolled the singing.  Mostly as to commentary I let him play the lead.  If he has questions, I answer them, or if there’s something critical that I know he can’t see, I will mention it.  He hates voices with a very wide vibrato (bordering on a wobble), so we often rate the voices on that dimension.”

Since the quarantine, Jim and Karen watch separately and share a phone call after. The GP at the Met opera Wozzeck was a recent favorite. “We talked afterwards about it,” says Jim. “I was impressed by that because I thought the tenor was great.” Karen heeded visuals to share. “I made a mental note during the broadcast to fill Jim in on the production design and the fact that, once again, the character of a small child was portrayed onstage by a life-sized puppet rather than a real child.”

“When I can’t sleep at night, I think of Beethoven’s sonata or a Beethoven symphony or sometimes Brahms to run through my head,” says Jim.

“Karen and I are still very good friends, of course, but I haven’t seen her for a while because we’re locked in here. And I think that’s going to continue for a while. But we’ll watch and talk whenever we can. But it was wonderful to perform with Karen because, as I said, our musical ideals and preferences were matched and that worked out really well because it was great fun to play with her.”