Are Six Pianos Better than One? Contemporary Works Make the Case in Cardiff

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Vale of Glamorgan Festival [1] – Grand Band: Vicky Chow, David Friend, Paul Kerekes, Blair McMillen, Lisa Moore and Isabelle O’Connell (pianos). St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 23.5.2017. (PCG)

Paul Kerekes – wither and bloom
Philip Glass – Closing
Ben Wallace – Fryderyk Chopin’s Psychedelic Technicolor ’lectro-Funk-Core Superstarlit Ultra-Throwdown on Op.28 No.4 [world première]
David Lang – face so pale
John Metcalf – Never Odd or Even
Steve Reich – Six Pianos

In one of his more deranged moments, Berlioz suggests in his treatise on instrumentation that his ideal orchestra would contain no fewer than thirty pianos. So far as I know nobody has ever had the foolhardiness to attempt such a feat (apart from anything else, where would the rest of the orchestra sit?) and it is extremely rare to find more than two pianos on a stage at any one time. The very few works, such as those by Percy Grainger, which call for more than this are firmly relegated to the fringes of the repertory and are generally heard (if at all) in the recording studio rather than on the concert platform. It was with a real sense of occasion therefore that this concert featured no fewer than six pianos on the stage of St David’s Hall, arranged in a star-like formation so that all the players (the piano lids of course removed) had direct eye contact with each other. This arrangement did have some drawbacks – it was impossible to hear how phrases moved from one instrument to the other – but in practice it is difficult to see how co-ordination could otherwise have been maintained without the use of a conductor.

Steve Reich’s Six Pianos (1973) was of course composed with exactly this sort of configuration in mind, and the performance here took on the effect of one gigantic piano played by multiple hands where musical phrases swirled from one register to another with startling effect. The resonance of the individual instruments blended into one massive sonority which served to disguise the essential fragmentary nature of the fingered repetitions from any one player. How the pianists managed to co-ordinate these repetitions left me flabbergasted; but co-ordinate it they did. I was however concerned to see that this was the second performance of the work they had given during the course of the day (they had earlier appeared at a school’s concert) and would suggest that the possibility of RSI [Repetitive Strain Injury] might seem quite pertinent. The other familiar work in the concert, a six-piano arrangement of the final section of Philip Glass’s Glassworks (1981), had the familiar minimalist elements but seemed to require far less strenuous efforts from the players.

The programme also contained four other works specifically written for six pianos. The first of these was perhaps the most experimental: wither and bloom (2014-5) by Paul Kerekes, one of the players in the Grand Band. The two movements, written a year apart, respectively disassembled and gathered together some melodic elements in a manner which the composer in his programme note likened to “time-lapse videos of plants or flowers unfurling.” Perhaps some visual element would have added greater focus to music which at times seemed dangerously close to coming to a halt altogether. There were, too, moments when the pianists seemed to shift slightly out of time with each other which may have been intended but could also sounded uncomfortably accidental.  The similarly uncapitalized face so pale (1992) by David Lang was reduced almost to a monadic line declaiming in extremely slow motion the Guillaume Dufay ballade Se la face ay pale surrounded by tremolo ornamentation which passed from one piano to another. Lang was described by the New Yorker, so the programme booklet informed us, as a “post-minimalist”. I am not sure precisely what this means, but presumably the bareness of the musical content in his piece was intentional.

Much more substantial, although half the length, John Metcalf’s Never odd or even (1995) built up a series of chordal sequences which were then played as a palindrome – at first moving forwards, and then backwards. As is usually the case with such patterns the music sounded very different when heard in the opposite direction, although some landmarks along the way were clearly audible. The final two chords, however (thank goodness for a piece of music which reaches a defined conclusion!) had definitely not been there at the beginning. The composer in his programme note emphasised the strict procedures he had applied to “apparently inconsequential material”, but his final comment “Satan, oscillate my metallic sonatas!” suggested that perhaps we should not take the piece too seriously.

And one piece in this concert which definitely did not set out to be taken seriously was the new commission featured in the programme, Ben Wallace’s bizarrely titled Fryderyk Chopin’s Psychedelic Technicolor ’lectro-Funk-Core Superstarlit Ultra-Throwdown on Op.28 No.4 (no shortage of capital letters here, thank you!). Perhaps for future performances the composer might consider cutting down the number of words in the title, because if it were given a catchier ‘handle’, it would surely capture the hearts of audiences everywhere. The work had plenty of meat on its bones as it progressed through a series of variations on Chopin’s prelude, with some very impressive climaxes including one built on an insistent and declamatory upper-register ‘paradiddle’ which became increasingly strident for just the right length of time before giving way to fresh material. One bumptious little phrase which emerged half-way through (and brought the work to a conclusion) was a cadential figure which reminded me of the dreary patriotic ballad “God bless the Prince of Wales” and which I thought might have been a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the commission from the Vale of Glamorgan Festival. During a conversation with the composer during the interval, however, it transpired that he had no such intention and indeed had never even heard the tune in question! The audience thoroughly enjoyed themselves (there were bursts of quiet laughter audible in places), and indeed this was one of the most immediately approachable first performances of new classical music I have heard for some time. The composer has already garnered a considerable reputation in the field of music for video games, and one looks forward to his future career with eager anticipation. In the meantime, I look forward to encountering this piece of “ridiculous dance music” (the composer’s own words in his programme note!) again, and soon.

The hall was only half full, although it had been promoted both by the Vale of Glamorgan Festival and by St David’s Hall itself as part of its international season; but the audience was enthusiastic and appreciative. Ben Wallace, Paul Kerekes and John Metcalf were all present in the hall to receive ovations from those present.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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