An Uncertain Overture

Xavier Spencer is one of Miamiís best young musicians, but you might never hear him play

He leaned against a wall backstage, shifting from one foot to the other, listening.

It was early October, opening night at Miami's $450 million Carnival Center for the Performing Arts. More than 2000 tuxedo- and evening-gown-wearing patrons, including the mayor and governor, had paid $500 apiece to be there. A sold-out crowd of 2400 packed the somewhat larger, sparkling new opera house across Biscayne Boulevard, where a $20 ticket bought the chance to watch the concert on a giant monitor.

Cachao, the 88-year-old Cuban mambo legend, had played an animated set. Jazz trumpet great Arturo Sandoval had blown off the roof, and a pantheon of pop stars including Gloria Estefan, Carlos Vives, and Alejandro Sanz had kept the place bouncing. Quincy Jones was handling MC duties, and tenor José Carreras was about to take the stage.

Jacqueline Carini
Jacqueline Carini

Xavier Spencer listened from a backstage hallway. He thought about the applause that had rained down on him here just a few days earlier. An eighteen-year-old aspiring classical pianist from a rundown neighborhood in Opa-locka, Spencer had played Rachmaninoff's Opus 33, No. 4, at a pre-grand-opening concert.

Despite Spencer's inexperience as a musician — he had begun playing at age thirteen, while most of his peers first tickled the keys as toddlers — he was one of the most talented young pianists in Miami, his music teachers said. He played with an unusual awareness, a delicate sensitivity, they said. He learned new compositions with almost frightening speed. He had "all the ingredients" to become a professional, according to one of his instructors. "When you hear him play, you say, 'Oh my God, he's a musician.'"

Spencer was at the gala to hang out with friends from the Jubilate Vocal Ensemble, set to perform during the concert's grand finale. Members of the chorus, a mix of mostly high school and college students, were biding their time, cracking jokes, begging for photographs with passing performers, and listening to iPods.

Slight and unassuming with wispy sideburns and a soft smile, Spencer faded into the surroundings. He wouldn't perform this night. In fact, with everything that had — and hadn't — happened recently, he wasn't sure he'd ever perform again.

José Carreras had just left the stage: the cue to get ready. With the orchestra tuning up, the choir director made a sudden hand motion, and the sopranos, tenors, altos, and basses began streaming out. Spencer stayed behind. He listened to the audience's cheers fade as the stage door closed in front of him.

There's a block on 22nd Avenue in Opa-locka that doubles as a theater of sorts. A small, decrepit housing complex is the site of almost daily drama, with policemen usually playing supporting roles. The reality-television series Cops filmed part of an episode there. On a recent afternoon, traffic came to a stop in front of the complex. There had been an exchange of words between a large woman on the sidewalk and someone in an SUV. The woman, her braided hair extensions flying, ran up to the vehicle's side and began punching the driver through the open window. It was just another day in Opa-locka, a city the FBI has for years ranked among the nation's most violent, a community where more than half the population earns less than $25,000 a year.

A few blocks north, on a stretch of 152nd Street near the train tracks, most windows are barred and couches molder on lawns. A few mailboxes down from an overgrown lot populated only by a discarded TV set is a one-story, mustard yellow house. Its porch railing is rusted, and the front door's plywood overhang pulls away from the nails that once held it up. If you're walking by on any given evening, you might hear tinklings of Bach or Beethoven, more likely Chopin.

Outside is the brown Chevy Malibu Spencer's mother, Renee Kearse, drives to and from her secretarial job at the county police department. Inside is a narrow living room/dining room with just enough space for a table, a cloth-covered couch, a recliner, a computer desk, a big-screen TV set, and an upright piano. A framed yellowing "I love Jesus" crochet hangs from the wall, and Our Daily Bread prayer booklets lie scattered on the dinner table.

The television buzzed low on a recent weeknight as Kearse, a preternaturally warm woman with a broad smile and red highlights in her hair, gushed about her son. "Oh, the heavens opened up," she recalled a woman saying of Spencer's playing at a Fisher Island home a year ago. It was the first and only time Spencer set foot on the exclusive isle — the wealthiest zip code in the United States — where he and other young Jubilate musicians performed for wine-sipping guests at a dinner for the Dade Community Foundation. He was amazed by the size of the pool. After cocktails and hors d'oeuvres on the home's verandah overlooking Biscayne Bay and the Miami skyline, the 60 or so guests dined in the cavernous living room while listening to Spencer play Liszt's "Liebestraum."

As Kearse spoke, Spencer, dressed in baggy jeans, a billowing striped button-down shirt, and Adidas sandals, tapped his feet on the floor and swayed slightly on the edge of the couch. He occasionally chimed in to complete his mother's sentences but otherwise stayed quiet or answered questions with a simple yes or no.

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