DULUTH -- As an immediate adviser to the president and Cabinet official for a country embroiled in two wars and facing rising world tensions, time spent with a piano brought moments of escape for Condoleezza Rice.
"People have asked me if it's a way of relaxing and I don't think you can really relax when you're struggling with Brahms," she laughed. "That's not how I would characterize it, but I think ... it's transporting because when you're playing Brahms you can't think about anything else. So even in the depths of my time in Washington during difficult times of war and peace and complicated times in international politics, it was always a way to get away."
While the former secretary of state has had an illustrious career in foreign politics, diplomacy and academia, a young Rice anticipated becoming a concert pianist. Despite following a very different career path, she returns to the piano to play occasional benefit concerts and other performances in between teaching classes in political science at Stanford University.
One occasion has brought Rice to Gwinnett, where she will perform today in Duluth alongside the musicians and chancel choir at Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church, where her cousin, Lativia Ray-Alston, is a member.
Rice learned to play from her grandmother, a piano teacher, when she was barely older than a toddler.
"I would go to the piano and sort of bang at it after her students left and pretend to play," Rice said. "Pretty soon I would say, 'Can I take some music home to practice,' and she would give me music and I would always forget to bring it back so one day she gave me a book, just a regular book, and I said, 'This isn't music,' and she told my mother, 'You know it's kind of unusual that she would notice, so let me try to teach her.'"
Rice is part of a musically talented family. She is a fourth generation musician -- her great-grandmother and mother also played piano, as well as her mother's sister. One of her uncles was a talented trumpeter, and a cousin plays trumpet as well.
Rice's first name is derived from an Italian musical term.
"My mother came up with it," she said. "She thought about several possibilities. Andantino, but that means moving slowly. She thought about allegra, but that meant fast, that wasn't good. So she found this term con dolce or con dolcezza, which means with sweetness, so she changed the endings around a little bit so it would be easier to pronounce for an English speaker and made it Condoleezza. So I was born with a musical term right from the beginning."
But a strong musical foundation built from the time she was born didn't lead to the career Rice thought she would pursue.
"I wasn't good enough to be a concert pianist," she laughed. "I went off to the Aspen Music Festival School after my sophomore year in college and it's a school where a lot of prodigies study and I met 12-year-olds who could play from sight what it had taken me all year to learn and I thought, 'Hmmm, better find something else.'"
After wandering into a course in international politics at the University of Denver, Rice discovered a new calling. Delving into political science, international politics and Soviet studies, Rice left music behind, picking it back up in graduate school to teach piano lessons to earn money. In 1993, serving as provost at Stanford, Rice again returned to music when the dean of the law school, who was a violinist, invited her to play with a chamber group.
"All of a sudden I had my music back," she said. "I think you go through something when you know you're very good at something and you're planning to do that as a career and decide not to, maybe there's a little piece of you that wants to leave it behind, but at my age by 1993 I no longer had the same expectations of practicing four or five hours a day like I did when I was a major so probably I relaxed a little bit about it. I even had the experience of learning a piece again that I had played as a college student and realizing that piece meant so much more to me as an older person. So what you lose in technique, you make up for in soul."
Even after being named national security adviser to former President George W. Bush in 2001, Rice continued to play, performing Brahms' Violin Sonata in D Minor with cellist Yo-Yo Ma at Constitution Hall in April 2002 for the National Medal of Arts Awards. Before leaving the position of secretary of state in 2008, Rice performed for Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace.
"I didn't really expect to be playing for her," she said. "I thought I was just playing in Buckingham Palace."
Then-Foreign Secretary David Miliband, whose wife Louise Shackelton is a violinist with the London Symphony Orchestra, arranged the musical interlude.
"We all thought they meant just in a room in Buckingham Palace," Rice said, "and I got to London and I got a phone call from the ambassador who said, 'Your majesty would like to come by and attend,' so I thought, 'Oh, OK, this is suddenly a different level of concert than I've prepared for,' but she was wonderful. She is a lovely lady and so it was fun. I didn't feel nervous."
Rice played Antonin Dvorak's Piano Quintet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 81, and the second movement of the Brahms' Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34, along with Shackelton and three other members of the London Symphony Orchestra.
Brahms happens to be Rice's favorite composer.
"He's extraordinarily passionate without being sentimental and goopy. I don't like goopy music," she laughed. "I don't like the Russians for instance, as much as I'm a Russianist. Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, it's all too much on the sleeve, the emotion. Brahms is restrained but still emotional, and I tend (to lean) toward the Germans."
Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2 is one of her favorite pieces and one she hopes to play, she said, before she leaves this earth.
"It may take that long to learn it too," she said. "It's really difficult."
Since returning to Stanford to teach, Rice has performed for a couple of benefit concerts in support of Classics for Kids Foundation, an organization that puts high-quality stringed instruments in schools to encourage children to continue to play.
"I feel very strongly about getting music instruction and music, band and that sort of thing back into the schools," Rice said. "If we can't get it into the schools then we have to find ways to provide those opportunities for kids, so I'm doing benefits these days for programs allowing kids, particularly underprivileged kids, to get a chance to study music."
Rice will perform this evening during an invitation-only "Concert for Wishes" in Atlanta to benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Georgia and Alabama, which grants the wishes of children with life-threatening medical condition.
The following video is raw rehearsal footage from Friday afternoon at Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church