Celebrating World Piano Day: An Interview with Western-Li Summerton

In celebration of World Piano Day, Western-Li Summerton talks to us about his inspiration and influences, career highlights, and what he enjoys most about his role as Company Accompanist for Atlanta Ballet.

Music has always played a significant role in Western-Li Summerton’s life. His family cherish the early childhood photographs of him playing with a toy piano. These early musical inclinations soon progressed to group and private piano lessons, and then ultimately onto studies and performing in recitals, masterclasses, competitions and collaborations with other young musicians.

These days, Summerton derives a great deal of inspiration from new and contemporary music by current composers. “Last November I had the opportunity to see the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra perform Outi Tarkiainen’s Midnight Sun Variations,” he explains. “The way that Tarkiainen plays with timbral colors and sound masses across the orchestra to depict nature and new stages of life kept me at the edge of my seat. Experiences like these bring renewed vigor and energy into my own pursuit of artistry,” he enthused.

Summerton’s musical influences cover a wide range of genres and time periods. “As a classically trained pianist, I love the works of the classical repertoire, especially those of Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Ravel. However, I have also developed a passion for electronic music and the production of this art form.” One of Summerton’s favorite artists of this music genre is Flume. “His ability to manipulate sound samples and create sonic landscapes is utterly captivating and imaginative,” he explains. Summerton is also secretly a bossa nova enthusiast, loves to listen to Astrud Gilberto’s 60’s albums, and counts Martha Argerich, Khatia Buniatishvili and Beatrice Rana among his favorite musicians.

Summerton, like many pianists, enjoys playing as much personally as he does professionally, and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6 is a piece that he reads-through and practices in his spare time. “It is one of those pieces I grew up listening to, and I love it for its virtuosic and playful nature,” he reminisces. “Professionally, one of my treasured pieces to play is Ravel’s Mirroirs: III. Une barque sur l’Ocean. This impressionist work was one of my favorite recital pieces and offers a wealth of technical challenges and rich harmonies for the performer.” His favorite piece of all time? Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor. “The first and third movements, a nocturne and passacaglia, are the perfect blend of Shostakovich’s exquisite melodic writing, combined with a dark harmonic landscape. The second and fourth movements, the scherzo and burlesque (not to mention the third movement’s cadenza), offer incredible technical and virtuosic playing that will thrill any listener.”

While Summerton has enjoyed many notable career highlights, the biggest to-date was performing for Justin Peck’s In Creases. He had the opportunity to work with Spellman College’s Dr. Rachel Chung to perform two movements from Philip Glass’s Four Movements for Two Pianos.

With such a rich and diverse performance history, it must be difficult for a pianist to highlight a favorite. But Summerton is in no doubt. “For me, it was Pleiades Dances with Atlanta Ballet in our Strike your Fancy program in the spring of 2022. That was my first performance as a company pianist with Atlanta Ballet.

Summerton has been on Atlanta Ballet staff for just over a year and enjoys collaborating with the Company’s creative and multi-disciplined artists. “I decided to join the ballet because I am passionate about the collaborative and inter-disciplinary aspect of music with movement,” he highlighted. “I have always loved playing orchestral reductions of operas, ballets, and symphonic works, and wanted to combine this with other disciplines in the arts.”

His most recent Atlanta Ballet performance was as accompanist for Midwinter Dreams, and Summerton felt the experience of playing three contrasting and challenging works in this program enabled him to grow as a pianist and musician. “The first piece, Love, Fear, Loss, was a work that I had the most artistic liberties with,” he enthused. “Though there was a set musical structure, I added extended harmonic colors and varied the melodic voicing to create my own original interpretation of this work. After Love, Fear, Loss, Summerton hurried to the orchestra pit to accompany Concerto Grosso on harpsicord. “I loved the contrast of grand piano to harpsicord and was honored to play alongside Atlanta Ballet Orchestra soloists Lisa Morrison, Linda Pinner and Charae Krueger.” The final piece he played in, Snowblind, was the longest and most complex piece on the program. “Being an orchestral work with prominent piano solos, I had the privilege of playing with Atlanta Ballet Orchestra through the many excerpts of Amy Beach, Arthur Foote and Arvo Pärt.”

If you didn’t have an opportunity to watch Summerton play in Midwinter Dreams, then you won’t want to miss the upcoming production of Significant Others, where he will be performing a selection of Rachmaninoff preludes for Choreographer Ben Stevenson’s Three Preludes. “This breathtaking work uses these preludes as a backdrop for a budding romance that grows and evolves throughout the ballet. Audience members will be captivated by the rich texture of the graceful partnering in conjunction with the heart stirring score of Rachmaninoff.”

So, what is the best thing about being the accompanist for Atlanta Ballet? For Summerton, it is not necessarily about playing the piano itself (although he reassures us that he does love his profession!) “Playing piano has allowed me to connect and work with so many artistic, supportive and diverse people of multiple backgrounds at Atlanta Ballet. There is nothing more fulfilling than when the efforts of so many moving parts come together to create an amazing performance and production for our audiences.”

You can enjoy Western-Li Summerton’s live piano accompaniment on-stage at Cobb Energy Centre during Atlanta Ballet’s performance of Significant Others, May 12-14.

Western-Li Summerton with Atlanta Ballet in Pleiades Dances. Photos by Kim Kenney.
Western Li-Summerton as a child. Photo by Shihua Xu.