Connor Chee is back in Arizona, spreading his musical wings
It was only a generation ago Navajos were being told to forget about college; they were better suited to manual labor.
Now there are Navajo lawyers, Navajo physicians, Navajo college professors … even a Navajo concert pianist.
“I always love to hear of someone being the first Navajo to do something,” said Connor Chee. “It’s so great to see people pursuing their dreams, whether it’s in sports, music, science, whatever.”
Chee has racked up his share of firsts. He’s the first Navajo to win a gold medal at the World Piano Competition, the first classical pianist to win a Nammy, and, we’re willing to bet, the first classical performer to grace Gallup’s First United Methodist Church in a metallic blue dye job.
“Is that your real hair color?” queried a skeptical young fan after Chee flawlessly performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 with the Red Rock String Ensemble Sunday night.
“It is now,” shot back Chee without missing, as they say, a beat.
The sparse but enthusiastic audience Sunday got a real treat in Chee’s sensitive interpretation of the 21st, a difficult piece not only technically but because most people are familiar with it, or at least the bits and pieces that have surfaced in movies and commercial scores over the years.
“Effortless!” enthused concertgoer Judy Conejo afterward. “One of the best I’ve heard. I’m really glad I brought my Kleenex.”
The Times last checked in with Chee, who is bilagáana born for Kin Yaa’áanii, when he was a teenage student at the Eastman School of Music. He still had the novel aura of a prodigy then; at 28, he is working hard to claim a niche in the competitive world of classical music.
Since graduating from Eastman in 2009, he has obtained a master’s from the University of Cincinnati and moved back to his native Arizona. He has two CDs out, including the Nammy-winning “The Navajo Piano.”