“Holy piano players, Batman! Five concert grand pianos and 10 pianists?”
Yes indeed, and Joseph Holt, artistic director of Artist Series Concerts of Sarasota and musical entrepreneur, brought his “Piano Grand” back to the stage of a sold-out Sarasota Opera House Saturday afternoon for a third installment of exceptional and exciting musical entertainment.
The 10 pianists (double the number who played in last year’s “Piano Grand II”), Genviève Beauchamp, Don Bryn, Joseph Holt, Andrew Lapp, Tom Purviance, Avis Romm, Lee Dougherty Ross, Jonathan Spivey, Milana Strezeva and Aza Torshkoeva, are well-known performers in the area, but together they present a formidable bit of artistry.
This was a concert, yes, and a good one, but it was also a musical event that was meant to be enjoyed rather than critiqued.
Of course, things might have gone a bit smoother with more rehearsal on the five concert grands imported especially for this concert from Steinway & Sons in New York. The pianos arrived Friday afternoon and were on their way back to New York before dark on Saturday, so learning the ins and outs of these instruments was pretty much out of the question. Every piano is different, with a sound and personality all its own, and it takes a bit of time to get acquainted. Ask any pianist.
Having said that, it was an afternoon full of pianistic dexterity, interesting repertoire and more than a little showmanship.
Holt provided a running narrative between selections, allowing the pianists time for “musical chairs” in switching combinations and pianos, while giving the audience information about the pieces to be played.
The first half of the program was more serious in intent, devoted to works by Mozart, Beethoven, Johann Strauss and Chabrier, whose “España” featured some outstanding castanet playing by guest Carmen de Vicente.
Steinway artists Avis Romm and Andrew Lapp opened the second half with an excellent arrangement and performance of Rodger’s “Carousel Waltz,” followed by Lecuona’s “Malaguaeña,” once more with the enhancement of de Vicente’s wonderful castanets.
Two arrangements by Holt were next. “A Little Ragtime” melded the music of Scott Joplin, Zez Confrey and a few others into a musical bouquet of all-time favorites.
Bernstein’s overture to his stage work “Candide” was given a wonderful performance in Holt’s outstanding transcription for five pianos, 10 players and 20 hands, all seeming to be busy at the same time
The transcription of orchestral works for piano, be it one or five, is always a daunting task, for even though all the notes are accounted for, the varying textures of strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion can remain elusive to even the best arranger.
N. Jane Tan, who was credited with most of the arrangements on the program, did an admirable job, but for me, the most accurate and original transcriptions of the afternoon were done by Holt, whose arrangements seemed to echo the instrumental voices with greatest success.
Tchaikovsky’s venerable “1812 Overture” closed the concert, with special “interactive participation” by the audience. Everyone received paper bags to blow up and pop at the moment in the overture where fusillades and cannons fire, as Holt, who was conducting, gave the cue. And fire they did with a most convincing uproar as if the Sarasota Opera House itself was under siege.
Yes, it was a musical event, an afternoon where subtlety and nuance could be considered a bonus, but it was genuinely enjoyed by all, bringing forth “Stars and Stripes Forever” as an encore.
“Holy piano players!” indeed. It was quite an afternoon.