Arts & Culture Community South Orange

Mystery Solved! The Curious Tale of the Talented Piano Player in South Orange

Ivan Fradkin
Ivan Fradkin playing piano in South Orange in October. The piano was part of South Orange Performance Art Center’s “Playin’ Around South Orange” public art project. (Photo by Liz Lewis Haller)

Are you ready for an uplifting story that contains the very best of our local community? Oh, and it also involves a talented pianist, a heaping dose of community sleuthing via a SOMa Lounge Facebook thread, and a generous South Orange resident.

In sum, a story that has all the feels.

On October 7, South Orange resident Liz Lewis Haller got off the train at the South Orange station. She and her seven-year-old daughter were returning from an art class in Summit. “I remember it was a beautiful day. And there was this guy playing piano and it was just beautiful music,” recalled Haller. “And I just sat there and it was so perfect.”

The pianist was playing an impromptu song on one of the five pianos that were part of  Playin’ Around South Orange, the South Orange Performing Art Center’s tuneful public art project.

So Haller pulled out her phone and started to record the pianist’s performance.

“When I started to video him, he kind of gave me this look that a 17-year-old would give to a random mom videotaping,” said Haller. “The sentiment of his body language – it was so adorable. I immediately got this feeling from him. What a sweet kid, what an amazingly talented kid. I started to think about how cool our town is and how this moment was both extraordinary and ordinary at the same time.”

Haller, who is Vice President of Creative Sync for Advertising and Gaming at Warner Brothers, started brainstorming about an internship she could provide for the pianist. “I want to give back more than just donating money. I want to give my time. I want to make a difference. And I have a great resource with my job,” she said.

But there was one problem: Haller left without saying anything to the young pianist.

“I couldn’t believe it. Here’s an opportunity that slapped me in the face and I didn’t introduce myself to him,” she said.

So Haller took to local social media, posting the following comment on SOMa Lounge: “Not sure why this didn’t occur to me when I took this pic today, but I’d like to offer this guy an internship at Warner Bros. Records, if he’d like one. Happened upon this talented guy playing his heart out today. My daughter and I gave him a round of applause, but I wish I would have spoken to him too. If you know him, tell him he’s got a fan.”

The post received hundreds of replies, replies to replies, replies to replies to replies, and a lots of .

Through a series of comments, Haller learned from others on the thread that Fradkin was a student at Newark Arts High School. “He played beautifully, and I spoke with him for a few minutes,” Matthew Traub said, responding to Haller’s Facebook post. “He said he’s a 16-year-old senior at Arts High School in Newark and is hoping to go to Howard University. Hopefully, that’s enough to go on for you to find him. Let us all know!”

That talented young man is named Ivan Fradkin, a Newark resident. “When Liz saw me playing on the outdoor piano in South Orange I was improvising in the key of E♭,” he recalled.

Haller soon got in touch with the principal as well as Fradkin. His father, Steven Fradkin, has been teaching history and social studies at Columbia High School for over a decade.

Fradkin’s music tastes are diverse. “I listen to a wide range of music so I am influenced by every genre and time period, but my biggest influence would have to be Ray Charles,” he said.

This isn’t the first time the gifted pianist has been in the news. In 2014, Fradkin played ping pong with Governor Chris Christie at Boys and Girls Club in Newark (you’ll have to watch to see who won).

SOPAC was also excited by Haller’s story and the talented Fradkin. “We are always delighted to hear about the impact of the arts in the community,” said Dee Billia, Director of External Relations at SOPAC. “There is magic to putting pianos in the parks and on the sidewalks of South Orange and seeing what happens. It’s a beautiful way for people to connect!”

“I ran into some red tape because of his age. My company wouldn’t allow a 17-year-old intern,” explained Haller. “Instead, we worked out a plan where he could come in for a week and shadow me. I never had someone shadow me so I was kind of making this up as I go along. I showed him what I do and what other people on my team do.”

Throughout the week, Fradkin’s mother would drop him off at the train station, and he and Haller would then commute into New York City.

Haller explained that she wanted to provide Ivan with a behind-the-scenes experience — the business side of music. “However, we have a studio where songwriters work out of and we had a little jam session. It was a total bonus.”

Ivan Fradkin and Liz Lewis Haller
Ivan Fradkin and Liz Lewis Haller at the Warner Brothers office in Manhattan. (Photo courtesy of Liz Lewis Haller)

What’s next for the pianist? Haller hopes she’ll still be able to provide him with that internship. “He’s applied to a few colleges and his goal is to get into Howard University and major in jazz piano,” Haller said. “I told him that once he’s settled, we can look into an internship in the New York area or Los Angeles.”

For Haller, the experience has been satisfying. “When you have a dream, it’s always a question of how do you get to that dream. It’s kind of nebulous,” she said. “During the week, I’ve tried to show him the possibilities and how the business works.”

“I cannot pinpoint the most valuable lesson I learned because I gathered an abundance of useful information,” said Fradkin. “For me, the highlight of this experience was the opportunity to network and become a familiar face in both Warner Brothers and Atlantic Studios.”

On December 1, Haller revisited her original SOMa Lounge post and added an update about Fradkin’s week of shadowing her at Warner Brothers. Once again, the  from the loungers started appearing on the post.

Haller said she’s thrilled that her instincts were right when she sat down and listened to that piano player a few months ago. “I like to pride myself on being a very good judge of character,” she added.

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