Joseph Holt is a unique blend of creativity and hard work. He’s the Artist Series Concerts’ director of artistic programs, Gloria Musicae’s artistic director and Faith Lutheran Church’s director of music. On top of all that, he’s a virtuoso pianist in his own right.
On Oct. 9, Holt will join four other talented pianists at the Sarasota Opera House for the Artist Series “Piano Grand!” concert to show just what the piano can do. His fellow pianists are Don Bryn, Andrew Lapp, Rich Ridenour and Jonathan Spivey; they’ll be playing on five identical Steinway & Sons grand pianos. Holt spoke with us recently about the piano’s expressive power. He was happy to share why he considers the piano to be “the most orchestral of instruments.”
What inspired you to create a five-piano concert?
The idea came from a series of multi-piano concerts I organized in Washington, D.C., when I played with the United States Army Band. We actually had 10 players on five pianos.
Was that a new concept?
No. Multi-piano performances have been around since the 18th century.
Tell us a few of the compositions you’ve selected.
We’ll have some lesser-known gems, like the overture from Suppé’s “The Beautiful Galatea,” and a tango by Astor Piazzolla — Argentina’s foremost 20th century tango performer and composer. Our more well-known pieces include Johann Strauss’ “Blue Danube Waltz,” the “Waltz of the Flowers” from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite,” Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance,” Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” and a selection from Rachmaninoff. They’re familiar compositions — but like you’ve never heard them before. So, there’s an arrangement of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” a delightful piano piece that Mozart wrote. We all know it. But it’s a jazzy variation. The pianos play different phrases, and bounce off each other with all these jazz riffs.
Why these particular pieces?
We selected the compositions for their range of expressive power. Some pieces are quieter; some are a little bit angular; others are highly dramatic. If everything’s dramatic, it becomes bombastic — an assault on your senses.
I assume the pianists won’t all be banging away simultaneously.
No. Five pianos playing together sounds like five pianos playing together. I constantly switch up the combinations — the performance can be a solo, a four-hand duet, two pianos, four hands, or any number of variations. But each pianist won’t play every single note every single time. I also tried to be creative and structured the program so it’s not all the same. It’s a musical potpourri — the individual pieces are all extremely different. Each has been transcribed from the full orchestral score.
How does that work?
An orchestral score, say “The Blue Danube,” will have a bass part, a rhythm part, a harmony, a melody part, counter melodies and so on. Originally, these are written for violin, drums, etc. The transcriber substitutes piano for the various instruments. This works particularly well for the piano. It’s the most orchestral of all instruments.
In what way?
Strictly speaking, the piano is purely a percussion instrument. A key is pressed; a hammer strikes a string; it couldn’t be simpler. But with the right touch, a piano can seem to be singing; it can seem like other instruments. The pedal mechanism allows the sound to reverberate in the wood. There’s a warm, human feel that electronic keyboards just can’t capture. You can achieve a variety of colors and sounds with the instrument — if the piano’s in the right hands, that is. We’ll have 10 of the very best on five pianos. Multi-pianos have tremendous expressive power; it’s a very effective way of presenting these pieces without a full orchestra. To a lover of piano, it’s like going off to piano heaven.
We’ve talked about what we’ll hear. What will we see?
Concertgoers love watching the pianists’ hands. With five pianists, that gets a bit complicated. I arranged the pianos in a crescent: two on one side, two on the other, and I’ll be the man in the middle. No matter where you sit, you’ll be able to see someone’s hands. We’re also going to move around and play different pianos. On top of that, we’ll remove the lids to give audiences a glimpse of the marvelous machinery inside the pianos. It won’t be a static performance.
How did you select the four other pianists?
The lineup came together very organically. We have such a plethora of fabulous pianists in the area, who not to select was the real challenge.
How do you end the concert?
With a rah-rah arrangement of Sousa’s --“The Stars and Stripes Forever.” With my military background, I couldn’t resist.