SALT LAKE CITY — Kevin Cole knew something was wrong when the right side of his face started going numb. He just didn’t know how serious it was.
After experiencing some hearing loss in his right ear and persistent headaches, the renowned pianist found answers in an MRI scan: He had an acoustic neuroma — a benign but potentially life-threatening tumor that develops on the nerve connecting the inner ear to the brain. It had been growing for several years.
An eight-hour brain surgery would remove the rare tumor but could also lead to significant hearing loss. Piano was his life — he’d been playing since age 4. Still, the musician had zero hesitation and moved forward with the surgery.
“I wanted this out of my head as soon as possible,” Cole wrote in an email to the Deseret News. “I knew I was almost certain to lose hearing in my right ear in order for the surgeons to get all of the tumor.”
Cole lost all hearing in his right ear, but after the surgery, the doctors told him the tumor was larger than the MRI showed. They had removed it at the right time.
Following the surgery in March 2018, Cole — who is widely regarded as the nation’s leading interpreter of George Gershwin’s music — had to face tough questions: Could he still do it? Could he still have a professional music career?
He waited three weeks before touching a piano. And then, exactly eight weeks after his surgery, he played the toughest concert of his life.
Backed by the Albany Symphony, Cole performed all four of Gershwin’s major works for piano and symphony — plus two encores.
“I knew I was good for a few more years,” Cole said.
But some things have changed for the pianist since last year’s surgery. He relies more on his sense of touch now when it comes to playing softer or louder. With his deaf right ear facing the audience, it’s harder to gauge people’s reactions — although he says he can feel the audience breathing with him when the music builds during the last few pages of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”
Above all else, though, Cole said the biggest change is his appreciation for a life in music.
He keeps a busy schedule and will be performing “Rhapsody in Blue” — the piece that served as his introduction to Gershwin when he was 6 years old — with the Utah Symphony on Nov. 15 and 16 (the second night being a more informal concert experience). It’s his signature piece, and one he never tires of.
“Gershwin helped create a new sound — an ‘American sound’ that combined the rich folk music of several cultures into something new and exciting; the melting pot of Manhattan fused with the city sounds,” Cole wrote. “Gershwin captured that, and in turn, it helped us define what it is to be American. This is our musical heritage as a nation — our ID.”
Cole is looking forward to his upcoming concerts, but he knows it’ll be hard to top the first time he performed “Rhapsody in Blue” with the Utah Symphony — an outdoor concert at Deer Valley Resort.
“It was raining. I was playing the ‘Rhapsody in Blue,’ and when it got to the andante — the main ‘love theme’ — all of a sudden the clouds parted, the sun appeared and a glorious rainbow filled the sky,” he wrote. “Everyone sighed in wonder. I will never forget that moment. Thanks, George!”
If you go …
What: Kevin Cole performs Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” with the Utah Symphony
When: Nov. 15 and 16, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple
How much: Nov. 15, $25-$97; Nov. 16, $10-$92