You never know what you’ll get when pianist Michael McDowell takes the stage at the Manship Theatre.
Thursday’s innovative show begins at 7:30 p.m. with him, his piano and a fishbowl.
No fish, just the bowl, filled with slivers of paper, each of which has a song title on it. McDowell will pull two slips of paper at a time and do a mash-up of the songs.
“It may be ‘Danny Boy’ paired with Led Zeppelin,” McDowell says. “I don’t know what it’s going to be, so every song will be a surprise.”
In between songs, McDowell will talk with the audience, maybe even inviting some on stage to pick a few titles from the fishbowl.
When he’s “playing on the edge,” as McDowell calls his style, every note is “spontaneously composed in real time for the audience.”
“No two rehearsals or concerts are ever the same, and I consider it a privilege to share once-in-a-lifetime musical experiences with my fans,” McDowell says. “Playing on the edge is a new experience for most orchestra-goers and often a fun, refreshing way of viewing traditionally classical instrumentation.”
McDowell’s first performance at the Manship Theatre was in 2014 with legendary New Orleans musician and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Allen Toussaint.
From the stage, Toussaint looked out and asked if there was a pianist in the house.
McDowell immediately stood up, and Toussaint invited him on stage. That appearance opened doors for McDowell.
“I ran into (then Manship Theatre Executive Director) Renee Chatelain when I was leaving the stage, and she asked me if she could book me,” McDowell says. “I told her that I’d been trying to getting a booking at the Manship Theatre for a long time.”
The Thursday show will be the third in the theater for the LSU senior, who was born and raised in Baton Rouge.
McDowell, 21, has been playing piano for 12 years. He also was a drummer in the LSU Tiger Marching Band.
“I was in the first grade when I started playing,” McDowell says. “My older sister started taking piano lessons, and they made her promise to stick with it for five years. They bought an upright piano, and I understood even before I started taking lessons that if I played the low notes and high notes together, they sounded like a song.”
His first piano teacher was patient, allowing him to improvise if he first learned to play pieces as they are written. That led to McDowell’s style of performing.
McDowell, who began composing for piano as a pre-teen, draws from modern music as well Baroque and classical composers. He counts Elton John and George Winston among his influences.
McDowell will graduate from LSU with a bachelor’s degree in music composition in May.
“Some of my professors wonder if I’m really a student,” he says. “I play at St. Jude’s Catholic Church, St. James Place and Charlie’s Place, and I’ve been missing class to perform and to pull this show together. But, yes, I will be graduating in May.”
And he’s compiled an impressive resume in the meantime, with his compositions and arrangements having been programmed by orchestras, educational institutions and independent ensembles.
Last December, McDowell spent $7,000 of his own money to fund a band to back his Christmas concert at the Manship. Michael Borowitz, music director of both the LSU Opera and Opéra Louisiane, put the band together and conducted the performance.
“My parents advised against it, but I consider it an investment in my future,” he says. “And it’s paid off.”
McDowell mixed familiar Christmas carols with popular songs in that show, even matching “Carol of the Bells” with the Ying Yang Twins’ “Stand Up and Get Crunk,” which has become a favorite at NFL games, including the Saints.
“It’s amazing how well it worked,” McDowell says. “We even had a second line in the theater.”