A 1982 documentary that included footage of legendary New Orleans piano players Tuts Washington, Professor Longhair and Allen Toussaint performing as a trio was titled “Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together.” Even rarer, of course, is an opportunity to hear double that number — six pianists — perform an entire concert. But that’s what the Peak Performances series at Montclair State University offered on Feb. 14 and 15, when the New York-based Grand Band performed at the university’s Kasser Theater.
As Peak Performances executive director Jedediah Wheeler pointed out in his introduction to the Feb. 14 concert, it’s a daunting logistical challenge, first of all, to equip a stage with six grand pianos. But Grand Band, which describes itself as “the only professional piano sextet in the United States,” deals with this challenge all the time. And with some help from the Steinway company, the stage was set.
Now, I go to a lot of pop and rock concerts, and am very used to keyboards being used to approximate the sounds of other instruments: horns, strings, bass, etc. That’s not what this concert was all about.
The six Grand Band members — Erika Dohi, David Friend, Paul Kerekes, Blair McMillen, Lisa Moore and Isabelle O’Connell — stuck to their grand pianos throughout the evening, never using other keyboard instrument that would be more sonically versatile. As a result, Grand Music’s music often felt more akin to what you’d hear from a drum circle than the sounds that an orchestra or a traditional band of any kind creates. In other words, the six tended to generate a pulsating, rhythmically intoxicating ball of sound, rolling over the audience like a series of waves; these weren’t pristine arrangements where everyone added a distinct part that added something unique to the overall sound. The pianists also sometimes played their instruments in unconventional ways, striking the keys, for instance, with their arms instead of their hands, or standing up to reach into the body of the piano and manipulate the strings directly.
The pianists sat in a circle (see photo above): Two facing the audience, two with their backs to the audience, and two with their sides to the audience. There were four numbers in the program, and before three of them, pianists took turns talking to the audience, providing some musical commentary, or, in the introduction to the evening’s last number, Julius Eastman’s “Gay Guerilla,” some information about who the late Eastman was and how his underappreciated work is being rediscovered.
The first number was Kate Moore’s “Sensitive Spot,” described by her as “an intricate tapestry of interwoven rhythmic patterns.” The second number, Julia Wolfe’s “my lips from speaking …,” used the opening chords of Aretha Franklin’s “Think” as its starting point; it was more rhythmically dynamic and muscular than Moore’s piece, and build to an impressive cacophony.
The next number, Missy Mazzoli, “Three Fragile Systems,” was more melodic than the first two, though it had some violent outbursts. It was accompanied by Joshua Frankel’s Peak Performances-commissioned animated film, “Emergent System,” which featured abstract shapes, or bodies, moving to the rhythms of the music. For the bodies, Frankel based his animation on footage of actual dancers, choreographed for this project by Faye Driscoll.
The works by Moore, Wolfe and Mazzoli were performed together in the concert’s first half. The second was devoted to Eastman’s “Gay Guerilla,” which was minimalist in style but epic in scale, and served as a persuasive argument for the power and versatility — and seemingly infinite potential — of the six-piano format.
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