Increasingly, music vies for actor Moriarty's attention

October 20, 1993|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

Michael Moriarty is best known for putting criminals behind bars in his role as district attorney Ben Stone on the NBC series "Law and Order." But in his private life -- and increasingly in his public one -- what makes Moriarty happiest is putting notes between bar lines. Moriarty, who had been playing jazz piano since high school and who -- like Woody Allen -- has been moonlighting as a jazz musician in New York clubs since the late 1970s, has recently returned to his first love, classical music, as a composer.

It's in that guise that he'll make an appearance at Temple Oheb Shalom Sunday evening when he acts as the host for a concert given by his friend, the celebrated Russian emigre violinist Nina Beilina and her Bachanalia Festival Orchestra. Beilina will lead the orchestra in works by Bach, Rossini and Bottesini. But she will also perform Moriarty's "Psalm for Solo Violin," which was dedicated to the memory of actress Helen Hayes, and the actor himself will conduct the Maryland premiere of his own "Symphony for Strings."

Actor, jazz pianist, classical composer, conductor (and he's also a playwright!) -- is there anything this man can't do?

"Call me a Renaissance man, a jack-of-all-trades, or a scatterbrain -- I'm all of that," the actor says with laughter. "But it's made me a better actor."

The 52-year-old actor says he returned to music seriously a little more than 15 years ago during a dark period in his life when his first marriage was in the process of breaking up.

"It was a matter of what made me happy," Moriarty says. "I had tried to make acting my whole life, but I wasn't happy because I couldn't be a specialist."

The actor -- who says he's been listening to classical music since he was an infant in a cradle -- had already been involved seriously with jazz playing, arranging and composing when he met Beilina in 1987 after she played a program of Bach partitas and sonatas for solo violin at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York.

I was struck by the way she turned these pieces -- which I had known all my life -- into soliloquies," Moriarty says. "She was incredibly moving as a great actor might be moving -- there was an incredible intimacy to everything she did."

Beilina knew that Moriarty was a composer as well as an actor and asked him to write something for her. The resulting composition -- "Ninabluesina" -- has become one of the violinist's favorite encore pieces. Their relationship deepened when Beilina (who is Jewish) was asked by the Cathedral (which is Episcopal) to present an annual music festival there and because Moriarty (who calls himself "a Catholic on sabbatical") is involved with the Cathedral's social and cultural programs.

A synagogue like Oheb Shalom is also an appropriate place for Moriarty to perform. The actor is proud that his grandfather, a major league umpire, caused a stir in the 1935 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Detroit Tigers by throwing out several Cub players and their manager because of anti-Semitic slurs against Tiger star Hank Greenberg.

"The main thing a Jesuit education does is teach you to take life seriously," Moriarty says. "I think that art is at its best -- whether it's music, theater, films or even TV -- when it invests even the most mundane things with a sense of the sacred. Until the moment it's made as much religion as it is art, art is just entertainment. There are moments, even on 'Law and Order,' when I get a sense of that."

IN CONCERT

What: Actor Michael Moriarty and violinist Nina Beilina perform with the Bachanalia Festival Orchestra

Where: Temple Oheb Shalom, 7310 Park Heights Ave.

When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: Free tickets are available at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, Har Sinai Congregation, Temple Emanuel and Temple Oheb Shalom.

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