Pianist returns to classical roots with performance at Missouri Theatre

Monday, November 16, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 10:20 a.m. CST, Monday, November 16, 2009
Sutu Forté, center, instructs her performers on what to do in the beginning of their show during a rehearsal on Nov. 11, at Hazel Kinder's Lighthouse Theatre. From left, Irene Haskins and Hazel Kinder hug while Candace Martin smiles. Forte will perform a benefit concert Monday at the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts.

COLUMBIA — Sutu Forté's turning point came in 1994 when she returned to Columbia after a career stumble.

She walked out onto her new porch and silently asked for guidance.


Vaude Squad’s will be performed at  7 p.m. Monday at the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts. General admission tickets are $20 for adults and children 12 and under are free. Group rates apply to groups of ten or more at $10 per person.

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She told herself to never stop listening to the music in her heart.

Years later, the spirited pianist, now 57, is still following that advice.

Forté brings her talent and personality to the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts on Monday in a vaudeville revival show.

She will perform with the Vaude Squad featuring Jake Clayton, a musician from Nashville, Tenn., and Rob Doyen, an acting teacher at Stephen’s College. They will present the best of Moulin Musique, a live jazz review Forté performed from 2003 to 2007.

Her path to the stage has been as colorful as the rainbow streaks in her hair and the tie-dyed T-shirts she often wears.

Born Susan Fourcade and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, Forté came to Stephens College on a music scholarship at age 18. It was here that she found a niche.

“I just felt like finally, the ugly duckling whose egg rolled into the wrong nest,” she said. “I finally had met my own kind. We all adored the piano.”

After Stephens, she won a competition to solo with the St. Louis Symphony under Leonard Slatkin. She performed in Powell Symphony Hall, playing the three movements of Ludwig von Beethoven’s “Emperor Piano Concerto” at the conductor’s request.

From 1974 to 1978 she attended the Juilliard School of Music in its master’s degree program.

Although she finished, Forté called the experience "trial by fire" and said she “limped out of there.” To her, Juilliard was “political” and “impersonal."

Yet, she remained in New York because she “wasn’t ready to give up.”

After a disappointing debut in classical music, she began working with another teacher to help students perform Broadway shows. That was another turning point.

“It became much more of a pleasure for me to play popular music with all of these singers than to do all the serious classical stuff,” she said. “I remember in 1982 making the conscious decision to give up classical music.”

Then she hit a wall.

In her last years in New York, she turned to alcohol as a way to ease the pain of  “failure” as a professional classical pianist. Although she was able to hide it, she said it “tormented her” and she said she could only handle it for so long. She became paranoid and a recluse.

In 1985, she returned to San Francisco and lived with her grandmother who encouraged her to get a handle on her drinking.

“She was my angel,” she said.

With her family’s support, she attended her first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Twenty-four years later, she has never needed to pick up another drink.

“You know the muse, the great muse had a different plan for me,” she said. “For me it was to involve singers and dancers in music.”

Twenty-three-year-old Jake Clayton, a specialty instrumentalist performing in Monday's show with Forté, said it is difficult to be around such a positive person without having it rub off a bit.

“There are no words to describe Sutu,” he said. “She is a breath of fresh air. She sees life differently than anyone else. To her, life is bright colors and she sees beauty in everything.”

Apart from music, Forté calls herself a nature lover. She and “It’s Our Nature,” a grassroots organization, are working to purchase and establish the Columbia Nature Sanctuary as a peaceful space in town for people to enjoy the natural gifts of the world.

And then there are the cats.

She has four: Moxi, a sandy-colored girl who is “a good greeter” to guests and in-home students; Luba, brought from northern California in 1997; Zeytoon, a 17-pound lounge cat; and Francesca, a recently rescued female.

Reminiscent of Forté's own life, Monday's show will be mostly unscripted.

“There will always be music playing to keep the vibrations going and bouncing, one act after another,” she said.

She will play both George Gershwin and Ludwig Van Beethoven at the concert, saying she has “come full circle back to those greats.”

She knows it is all a matter of finding what you love and staying with it.

“What I am and know today is that making music from the heart, right here and now, is the most important thing,” she said. "How people receive it, that is up to them. But it really is all about the process of enjoying every note that you practice.”

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Ray Shapiro November 16, 2009 | 12:11 p.m.

Sutu Forte' provides a glimpse of Liberace, Victor Borge, Spike Jones, Lucille Ball and Cindy Lauper, and then some, all rolled up into one ball of unbounded entertainment energy.
All this, plus her natural ability to bring out the best in all performers who share the stage with SuTu, places Ms. Forte' into one of the most unique, difficult to define category of true talents of this 21st. century.
Do yourself a favor. See her and enjoy.

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