There are many ways to describe Anthony "Tony" Padilla besides a gifted pianist. He's a hometown boy, a Richland High grad known worldwide for his performance style, and an unassuming man who has left an indelible mark on the music world and the hearts of many in the Tri-Cities.
"Everybody loves Tony," said Wanda Briggs, a commissioner with the Trios Health Board. "His playing transcends problems and politics and soothes the soul. What better way to begin the countdown to Christmas than by listening to the enchanting magical music that Tony can provide."
Padilla comes home to the Tri-Cities on Nov. 25 for a fundraising concert for Trios Health, formerly Kennewick General Hospital.
Padilla, who began playing the piano at age 3, grew up in Richland, the son of Andrew and Zosie Padilla (both now deceased).
Josie Wannarachue, a close friend of the Padilla family, remembers the first time she saw little Tony play the piano.
"I think he was 4 years old and playing with the Youth Symphony," she said. "His feet couldn't reach the pedals of the piano so he stood up to play. He was so cute."
Wannarachue, Briggs and Donna Vance coordinated the fundraiser, titled A Night Out with Anthony Padilla.
"Tony is well known and beloved by many in the Tri-Cities who have watched him grow from a talented boy into a world-class concert pianist of immense talent."
Padilla, who is now 46, finally grew tall enough to hit the pedals while sitting at the piano, then went on to win the overall title at age 14 at the Mid-Columbia Symphony's Young Artists Competition, as well as a plethora of national and international piano competitions.
He finally settled at Lawrence University's Conservatory of Music in Wisconsin after earning his doctorate in music from the Eastman School of Music.
"Tony was also the youngest professor of music hired at Lawrence University," Wannarachue said. "I remember his mother was so proud of him."
As for Padilla, he's always game for a trip home because it's a chance to see his sister May-Lin Thomas, Wannarachue and other friends.
"It's always a pleasure to return to the Northwest to perform," he said. "Though my parents have passed away, my sister and her family still live in the Tri-Cities and my in-laws live in Portland."
Though being a professor of music, husband and father keeps Padilla busy, he still enjoys performing. Before their children were born, Padilla and his wife, Sooyeon, played as a duo for about 10 years when both were artists in residence at the Bay View Music Festival in Michigan.
"But we've been on hiatus since then. It's healthier for the marriage not to argue all the time about musical details," he joked.
Padilla and Sooyeon have two sons: Mory is 19 and Marc is 16. And there's no question he's one proud papa.
"Mory just started college at the Milwaukee School of Engineering on a full scholarship to pursue computer engineering," Padilla said. "Marc is a sophomore in high school, excelling in piano, cello, debate and soccer. He's already performed at the national conference of the Music Teachers National Association, and for master classes by my teachers from the Eastman School of Music."
Critics from New York to Europe have described Padilla as a child prodigy and whose piano playing is a "strong-willed, steel-fingered tornado who plays the piano with absolute authority and gives new meaning to the idea of interpretation to the extent that the U.S. Patent Office might well grant him a number. Nobody could copy him."
Padilla is humbled by the praise and never thought of himself as a prodigy. His modesty is genuine and is a trait both he and his sister inherited from their parents, Wannarachue said.
"This young man has always been special," she said. "Not only as a pianist but as a human being."
The Trios Health fundraising event starts at 6:30 p.m. at the Three Rivers Convention Center in Kennewick. Tickets cost $50 in advance or $65 at the door and are available at the foundation office in Kennewick or at Mills Music on Clearwater Avenue in Kennewick.
The concert includes music from Franz Liszt, Gershwin songs, Johann Sebastian Bach and Giuseppe Verdi.
-- Dori O'Neal: 582-1514; email@example.com; Twitter: @dorioneal