a whole lotta pianos

Man, if you love pianos, than the Alex Theatre was the place to be this past Saturday. LACO’s program for theBach & Mozart: Double Concertos concert featured not one pianist, not two pianists, and not three pianists. It hadfour pianists! They ranged in age from 12 to significantly older than 12, and they were backed by the orchestra in a glorious array on concertos from the masters of classical music. Plus, there was a program switcharoo that really kept me on my toes!

read more →Let’s address the switcheroo first and get it over with. I had time to peruse the program notes before the concert began, and my ears perked up, Scooby-Doo style, when I read this sentence: “[Gyorgy] Ligeti’s Piano Concerto is scored for a small orchestra with some non-traditional instruments, including slide whistle, alto ocarina (a small, egg-shaped flute) and harmonica.” Get out! Slide whistle?The same slide whistle that’s used at the circus when a clown’s pants fall down will be gracing the LACO stage? In theory, yes. In actuality, no. And that’s because at some point after the program book was published months ago, there was a program change, and the Ligeti Piano Concerto was booted off the list and replaced by a concerto by Beethoven.

I don’t know when it happened, and I don’t know why it happened, but it was a bummer for me, since the program already featured two old-timey concertos (ones by Bach and Mozart), and it would have been nice to hear a more modern take (the Ligeti concerto was written in the ’80s). You know who else was bummed? The slide whistle player, who, for all we know, was elated for a chance to graduate from kids’ birthday party gigs to the major leagues, only to get a call saying not to come. “We’re not playing the Ligeti anymore,” the slide whistle player might have been told, “and that jerk Beethoven didn’t include any slide whistle in his concerto.”

Enough talk about what wasn’t played on Saturday. Let’s focus on what was played. The evening began with Bach’s lovely and lively Concerto No. 2 in C major for Two Pianos, and those two pianos were played by Music Director Jeffrey Kahane and 12-year-old guest Ray Ushikubo. Yep, you read that right, 12 years old. The kid’s clearly a star, and if I had any thoughts that he was out of his league playing with all these grown-ups, those thoughts dissipated in 2 seconds. The concerto has a never-ending piano part, and Kahane and Ushikubo traded off playing it, passing it back and forth like tennis players. You could close your eyes and not know who was playing what, even in the second movement, which is basically a piano duet, with the orchestra not playing a single note.

Next up was Mozart’s Concerto No. 10 in E-flat major for Two Pianos, with Mr. Kahane being joined by the second guest pianist of the evening, Joanne Pearce Martin. My favorite movement of this piece was the third one, which had the catchiest hook of the evening (to use a phrase common in current popular music). Mr. Kahane pulled double duty during this piece, standing up when he could and conducting the orchestra before sitting back down and tackling his next piano section.

The only non-concerto piece in the program was a selection of 3 Ligeti Etudes, a solo piece played by guest pianist Jeremy Denk right after intermission. I’m usually grateful that a modern piece was included, as I do like variety, but these kinda stuck out like a sore thumb, because 1) everything else was a concerto, and 2) nothing else was solo. Mr. Denk’s introduction of the Etudes provided some much appreciated context, but I found myself awaiting the next concerto.

That next concerto was Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, with Mr. Denk tackling the piano part, and Mr. Kahane conducting everyone else. Mr. Denk proved to be my favorite pianist of the evening to watch, because he was very animated and invested. I must confess, though, that I held a bit of a grudge during this piece, as it was this Concerto that knocked the modern Ligeti concerto off the program. My mind wandered and I kept thinking of the slide whistle player, cold and alone, strolling through the streets, with nowhere to play his instrument. Maybe LACOcould make things right and include a slide whistle solo piece among next season’s offerings. It’s not too late to make that change, is it? Have the program book been printed?

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