“Let’s hear it from Grand Band!” said Conor, the young son of one of pianist Blair McMillan today, by way of introducing the group. Also an artistic director, McMillan, along with co-director Pam Goldberg, hosted the Rite of Summer Music Festival‘s last show for this season, “A Bigger Picture,” featuring the six pianists of Grand Band, at Nolan Park on Governor’s Island today. Four pieces were played, two of which were world premieres and one of which was a New York premiere. The fourth, Steve Reich’s “Six Pianos” has been played by Grand Band before, most notably at their debut performance at Bang on a Can two years ago. On each piece, Vicky Chow, David Friend, Paul Kerekes, Blair McMillan, Lisa Moore, and Izzy O’Connell moved as one musical unit.
First off what Michael Gordon’s “Ode to La Bruja, Hanon, Czerny, Van Cliburn and little gold stars…(or, To Everyone Who Made My Life Miserable, Thank You),” dedicated to his piano teacher from many years ago, affectionately referred to as La Bruja (the witch) in the title of this piece, which is what Gordon used to call his teacher. “It’s a fantastic opportunity to have written for these six great pianists,all of whom I’ve had a chance to work with in various concerts and projects over the years,” Gordon said by way of introducing his piece. “I myself grew up playing the piano and I couldn’t stop thinking about my piano teacher and all those scales I had to practice and all those piano lessons I had and I think you’re gonna hear a little bit of that,” he said. “It almost sounds like six people practicing the piano, while doing their lessons at the same time,” he describes. As for the composers mentioned in the title, Gordon explains, “Hannon and Czerny are the classic composers of all the exercises everyone on this stage has spent thousands of hours perfecting.”
At this point, one of the pianists demonstrated an example of the monotonous, time-consuming exercises. Gordon laughed in agreement. “Of course, Van Cliburn was the great American pianist who won the Tchaikovsky Competition in the Soviet Union in 1958, and he spurred a revival of piano music and pianists in America. He inspired my mother to send me to take piano lessons. So here’s the piece and I hope you like it.” A cacophony of collaborative exercises ensued, and although the piece brought back some terrible memories of my own piano teachers by way of association, it was definitely one of the more avant-garde pieces heard in Nolan Park today. It had the air of an independent film soundtrack….
“I liked the originality of it, but I was mostly confused the whole time,” said Alisa, 20, from Brooklyn. “I heard the scales he was talking about, but I didn’t really know what was going on.”
“That one was my favorite piece,” said Patrick, 38, from New Jersey. “I really enjoyed the way it moved from exercises to more recognizable.” Passersby mentioned enjoying how eclectic the sound of six avant-garde pianists sounded together.
Next, Blair McMillan, pianist and co-director of Rite of Summer introduced the second piece, but first he gave a little background on the origins of Grand Band. “So you may asking, six pianos, really? Well, yeah. There’s a precedent for this. There’s a group like this, in the U.K. that’s been around for about twenty-five or thirty years called Piano Circus and they commissioned quite a number of pieces for six keyboards, six pianos,” McMillan explained.
“They, like us, came together, to play a concert, twenty-five or thirty years ago, playing Steve Reich’s ‘Six Pianos,’ and that kind of got them to believe that six totally strange, neurotic pianists can stay in a room together for three hours at a time rehearsing and not kill each other, and that’s kind of how we’ve managed the past few years.”
“We’ve actually been commissioning pieces as we go, as we’ve only been together for about three years now, looking both outside of the group and within our ranks. And within our ranks we definitely have a couple very talented composers in the group, none more than this guy to my right, Paul Kerekes, who wrote the next piece, ‘Wither’ in the beginning of this year.” Today was only the second time they’ve performed it, and it was the first time it’s been performed in New York. Kerekes took the mic to explain that the piece was inspired by Renaissance music, by the movement of strong to weak, from piano to piano, a concept that is fleshed out in all different ways within his piece. He also wrote “Wither” so that the music would travel from piano to piano, a sight that is visually – and audibly – notable when Grand Band play on grand pianos as opposed to keyboards. Today, in the open air outdoors, Grand Band were playing six keyboards. Nevertheless, you could still hear the lead pass from high register to low register during the performance today.
New York composer Steve Reich’s “Six Pianos” was third on the program today, introduced by Grand Band founding member Lisa Moore, who thanked Rite of Summer for having them.
“One of the founders of minimalism, featured this weekend at BAM, this is a piece of his from 1973. I encourage you to lie back, relax, and look at the clouds as it’s sort of a meditative piece.” The audience happily complied, lying back on their picnic blankets, soaking in the music under the blue sky. It was a wise choice of Rite of Summer to reschedule the performance from it’s original times on Saturday (which saw thunderstorms) to Sunday afternoon. The weather couldn’t have been nicer, and was picnic-perfect. People had indeed brought snacks and drinks and children, just as the Rite of Summer website encouraged.
Fourth and finally was a world premier piece by Yale graduate student Ben Wallace, entitled “A Road You Can Go On (Variations On A Theme From Mario Kart),” which honestly tickled the audience pink. After a brief stage setup change, Vicky Chow and Paul Kerekes hopped on tiny toy pianos and melodicas, Izzy O’Connell and David Friend jumped on the same keyboard together, while Lisa Moore took over percussion and another occasional melodica, and Blair McMillan, sadly deprived of keytar, played leads in various sounds on another keyboard. As Professor James Leverett (about 65, Yale) said, “I’m totally biased, I’m a groupie, are you kidding? I loved it! And I thought they play very well together, especially with the thing at the end. That piece by Steve Reich is such a wonderful thing in and of itself, it’s a legend.”
It was indeed a legendary performance, featuring three premieres and a classic for six righteous pianos. If you missed out, you can find out more about Grand Band and their upcoming goings-on here. Check out more photos from the event here.