Arriving at Koerner Hall I was excited as all hell even though I didn’t know much about who or what was I was about to see. I did know for certain that Koerner Hall is perhaps Toronto’s most incredible music venue. The building and the room isn’t just stunning, but the acoustics are perfect. Every seat in the building is angled towards the stage. Sometimes concerts in dingy bars are the best, but only exceptional musicians play this room. So, despite my ignorance, my guiding principle proved to be totally right.
Piano Ecstasy is a suitable name for a concert featuring six nine foot grand pianos. There was about a million dollars of piano in the room. Looking at those six hulking brutes on stage, it could have just as easily been called Piano Porn, to use the parlance of our times. Also, the big black pianos were arranged in couples on stage, each couple in a kind of sixty-nine… never mind. Six pianos is a rare configuration, and a word on this is in order.
Guitar players get together and jam, but piano players typically don’t. Each pianist uses two hands to provide his own accompaniment, unlike guitar players who only have one fretting hand, so even one piano provides a dense tapestry.
To imagine the concert, picture not six pianos but twelve hands, expert hands, playing balanced and in no way overbearing arrangements. The added hands allowed bonus harmonies normally confined to the mind of some brilliant composer or conductor to materialize sonically. Six was not too much. Not every piece used all six pianos and there were actually eight musicians in total, so each song had a different configuration and personnel.
People who know these performers (Christina Petrowska Quilico, James Parker, Simon Docking, Chris Donnelly, Tania Gill, Russell Hartenberger, Serouj Kradjian, Gregory Oh) don’t need me to attest to their greatness, but it’ll sound like hyperbole to people who are unfamiliar with them. I’m not going to sit here and list all their accomplishments, but I can’t imagine anyone wishing the players had more technical ability. Short anecdote: the New York Times described Christina Petrowska Quilico as a “promethean talent”… when she was fourteen. These performers have been world class for decades. I’m not just admiring the individual performers for being so good, rather it is a nod to our species that we can produce such people.
Even though Piano Ecstasy was incredible performers playing the best instruments in the best room, one might reasonably dislike the music, though I loved it. It was dark and filled with tension. Not always so, but predominantly.
First, six pianos played a Johnny Cage composition consisting of dissonant music interspersed with short snippets of Beatles melodies. It was fun to hear recognizable tunes float in and fade out, but it was also like hearing Beatles through a storm cloud. Psychedelics on psychedelics.
Next was “Concertino for Two Pianos,” a Shostakovich composition that was by far the most accessible of all. Zipping harmonies and counterpoint were irresistible, sounding closest to the commonly imagined idea of classical piano. This piece featured two pianos but had more bounce than the first.
This was followed by a Bali inspired composition. Before knowing the geographic inspiration for this composition my ear detected a Chinese or Japanese sound. This proved a lousy accomplishment, as Bali is over 2,000 miles away from China. Still, I’ve seen GPS’s make miscalculations, and they communicate with satellites. The music sounded to me like it belonged in an Asian water garden. I have no clue if this makes any sense. Is there even such thing as a water garden? If not, I hope my comment registers as a compliment, not just as an obscure remark. It was serene and entrancing.
The sixth and final composition suitably entitled “Six Pianos” was incredibly hypnotic and beautiful. A theme was repeated over and over, but gradually and subtly changed before once more returning and repeating. The refrain grew and even pulsated, but never lost its essential character and feel, even if it was made anew of different notes and rhythm. It was the sonic equivalent of a spinning ball of energy whose epicentre was always perceptible even as it expanded and contracted and continued spinning. With all six pianos going hard at full speed it was impossible to tell who was playing what notes, and that’s the point. The music washes over you. It was indeed Piano Ecstasy.