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The American Piano

February 5, 2007

The American Piano is an interesting concept for an educational concert series. Together with pianist Steve Mayer (who may be the only person in the world who plays Art Tatum in the concert hall) and pianist-actor Anthony De Mare, American classical music scholar and industry gadfly Joe Horowitz has been traveling around the country presenting discussions, concerts and workshops at various universities on the development of US piano music. The premise, though not entirely clear to me, has something to do with Joe's idea of the piano as being an intrinsically democratic instrument because it can be played anywhere, from the concert hall to someone's living room to a bar. As a result, Joe says, the piano is an intrinsically American instrument.

I don't necessarily agree with the concept behind the Project: In a country whose democratic standards seem to be slipping, democracy can no longer be taken at face value, even if it was fundamental to the creation of the nation. But The American Piano still presents a fantastic way to get an overview of a wide range of piano music dating back to Louis Moreau Gottschalk solos from the 1850s to compositions by the likes of Frederic Rzewski, Henry Cowell, and John Cage involving prepared piano techniques composed as recently as 1992.

The biggest issue I had with the concert was the unevenness of the program. Joe wanted to include Stanford in the proceedings as much as possible to make the most of his residency there during the preceding week, so he programmed two pieces by local university people in the concert: an improvised piece for disk klavier by Stanford Music Faculty member Mark Applebaum entitled Intellectual Property, and a piece written by graduate student Per Bloland for piano fitted with electromagnets called Elsewhere is a Negative Mirror (Part I). Both pieces were overly-long and lacked originality.

After a delightful, snappy first half in which Mayer played pieces written from what Joe terms "The Black Virtuoso Tradition" by composers such as Gottschalk, Jelly Roll Morton, Scott Joplin and Art Tatum, the second half ("American Mavericks") did nothing but drag. A set of John Cage solos played by de Mare lacked color, for all their theatricality. By the time we got to the final work of the evening, a piece Rzewski had composed for de Mare based on Oscar Wilde's De Profundis, about a third of the audience had left. This was a shame, because De Profundis (also the name of the piece) was the highlight of the second half. De Mare brought a lot of emotion and humor to the piece. It was full of quirky passages and it really took advantage of the instrument's percussive qualities.

On a more positive note: the auditorium was packed (at least in the first half). And the audience was very diverse too, consisting of many different ages and races and both sexes more or less equally represented. It's encouraging to see so many people take an interest in the history of American piano music.

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