‘Sublime Intimacy’ composer helps arts talk to each other

Henry Palkes


Blame Henry Palkes’ storied career as a pianist extraordinaire on Dracula, werewolves and other heroes of horror films. Those were the creatures Palkes feared lurked in the basement in his family home in St. Louis, where as a youngster he practiced piano.   

When his parents said they would move the piano upstairs when he got better at it, he doubled down on his practicing and got much better, fast.  

Palkes, 62, has spent 40 years as a pianist and music director. He is a lecturer and music director for the Washington University Performing Arts Department, where he also is a principal dance pianist for the ballet program. He has served as musical director numerous times at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. He works as a voice coach.   

Since 1992, Palkes has been an affiliate orchestral pianist for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, and he is the pianist for their In Unison symphonic chorus program.  Palkes’ newest title is composer, for Ken Page’s new play, “Sublime Intimacy,” which  Max & Louie Productions will present Dec. 4-20 at the Kranzberg Arts Center. The show is about five friends whose lives were touched by their relationships with dancers. Their stories, Page says, “overlap, intertwine and inform each other as the lives and tales of friends often do.”  

Palkes made time last week to talk about working with Page and devoting a life to music.   

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You have served as pianist and musical director for Ken Page — a singer, actor and playwright — in the past. What attracted to you to his new project?  

I met Ken years ago and, since he’s moved back to St. Louis, our paths have crossed professionally from time to time. When he heard the music I composed last year for Carrie Houk for “Stairs to the Roof,” he asked me to work with him on “Sublime Intimacy.”  


What is your connection to dance?   

When I lived in New York, my best friend was a soloist for American Ballet Theatre. Because of him, I got tickets to dance performances and I became fascinated with the art form. Then, three years ago, I began accompanying dance classes at Washington University, and I’ve since become interested in exploring the way the different arts talk to each other.  


Can you elaborate on that?  

Musicians have a particular language, actors have a particular language and dancers have a particular language – and they all describe exactly the same things. I want to apply lateral thinking, figure out how to interpret in music what dancers do with their feet.   


How exactly do you do that?  

I see how directors and choreographers establish details, set up causes and effects and tackle complex issues, and all that channels into music in my head. Even when I see a straight play, I hear what the soundtrack might be.  


How did it go with Page?  

I sat down at the piano. Ken sat down in a chair and starting reading the script. Then he said, “Start playing.” It’s an interesting way to work, and I love it. You work quickly, and don’t get attached to things that are that temporal.  


When did your deep love for music develop?  

My parents were Jewish, and Jewish children learn to play instruments — it’s part of the approach to cultural enrichment. In those days, everyone had a piano, and my sister and I both started lessons when I was about 7.   


You did well – inspired partly by your fear of monsters in the basement – and then music gave you a niche at school?   

Yes. I was a fat, dumpy kid with sensible shoes, nothing cool about me, and piano was such a relief from all that nonsense. When kids are artistically inclined, they have to find a tool to serve as balance, and when they find it, they don’t leave it. Eventually, a chorus teacher recommended I attend the Interlochen (Michigan) Arts Academy, and then I got in at Juilliard.  


What happened next?   

I traveled, playing country music and working for label artists in Nashville, and playing jazz and R&B in California. I spent some time in Redding (California), working for Merle Haggard. In the early ’90s, after my dad passed away and my mom became ill, I came back to St. Louis and settled in to see if I could be a musician here.   


And you could?   

Yes – it’s not always been easy, but I enjoy all the things I do. Come and see “Sublime Intimacy.” People will love the play and thrill to the music.  


To learn more about Henry Palkes, visit hpstudios.wix.com/hpalkes.