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Careers: Coffeehouse Musician

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Prokofiev's Eighth Piano Sonata is no "Chopsticks." It's a ferocious virtuoso piece that demands technique, endurance, and interpretive fire to bring off. The last person you'd expect to see banging it out with any kind of finesse is some guy behind a Starbucks counter serving you latte.

"You never know who it is selling you that shirt, making you your coffee, or putting the shoes on you," says Christopher Basso, who's been an assistant manager at the East Village outpost of the caffeine cartel on Second Avenue and 9th Street for six years. In Fort Worth this past June, Basso won the second annual Van Cliburn Competition for Outstanding Amateur. Prominent music critics such as the Boston Globe's Richard Dyer dubbed him "electrifying" and "wonderful." But although he is talented and boyishly handsome, Basso, at 41, is twice as old as his hip-hop-happy co-workers, not to mention most of his would-be rivals for classical-music stardom.

"There is a big difference between the way I played when I was 20 versus now," he says in his small East Village apartment, framed between his upright and grand Yamahas. "There's more life and depth to it, elements in it that I don't think anyone at 20 years of age has. That's one of the problems today -- promoting 16-year-olds as if classical piano is like figure skating or gymnastics and you only have five years to do your thing."

Basso is recording the Prokofiev as well as Schumann's equally difficult Kreisleriana for Pilot Records, a small independent New York label, and he'll be giving recitals in St. Barts this month and Palm Beach in March, as well as at small summer festivals in Rockport and the Catskills. None of which allows him to give up the daily grind just yet. "I thought it would be humiliating to return to Starbucks," he admits, "but it wasn't. Suddenly, this day job doesn't necessarily seem like forever." He's cut down to only three days a week in order to practice more -- fortunately, his neighbors are sympathetic musicians and choreographers. "Winning the competition is definitely a confidence booster," says Basso. "I think something will happen."


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