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5760-2Photo: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian
A music and performance space in Springburn Park, Glasgow, Scotland, was created inside a steel hut by repurposing old pianos.

We had a parlor grand for many years, and I took lessons on it. It had belonged to my mother-in-law, who was much more musical than I. After I stopped playing, the piano sat forlorn a long time, drawing the attention only of toddler grandchildren. My husband decided maybe we could use the space. The piano did need work, and no one was buying a fixer-upper at the time, so he gave it away to a guy who would remove it.

What do you think that guy wanted a piano for? He planned to rent it to companies staging high-end houses before they went on the market. Ugh. What a sorry end for that piano! I like the idea in today’s article much better for an instrument that had once been loved.

Libby Brooks writes at the Guardian, “Inside a cavernous steel hut in the middle of Glasgow’s Springburn Park, the sweeping arc of keyboards, lids and carved panels has been taking shape, creating the UK’s first permanent auditorium made entirely of recycled pianos.

“Using mainly upright instruments, with a baby grand artfully sliced in half to make a corner balcony, about 40 pianos have been expertly disarticulated to create the tiered seating.

“ ‘When you dismantle a piano you end up with a kit of different parts, from the ornate front pieces to the strong planks normally hidden beneath the key,’ explains Tom Binns, who founded the Glasgow Piano City project in 2013, finding new uses for unwanted instruments in public places from hospitals to bookshops.

“It was Binns who brought together a Glasgow community activist with big plans and the Edinburgh-based instrumental innovators Pianodrome in what he says is a testament to the collaborative potential of social enterprise.

“Two years ago, Alex Docherty, a hip-hop artist and chair of Friends of Springburn Park, countered plans to demolish the site where the massive hut stands with a proposal for a community village with an event space, cafe and outdoor classroom.

“ ‘When I talk to my gran who grew up in Springburn, it used to have cinemas and places to go,’ Docherty says. ‘But since the decline in industry and the motorway demolitions [creating the unpopular dual carriageways and flyovers that bisect Springburn] they disappeared. We really need a community space in the area.’

“The area has its problems, including widespread unemployment and a high rate of drug deaths, but ‘there’s been an energy of change in Springburn over the last few years,’ Docherty says. …

“The plan to use old pianos for the seating came through Binns. He visited the team at Pianodrome, whose mobile amphitheatre has impressed audiences at previous Edinburgh festivals as a creative response to consumer culture, to see their initial constructions. ‘I thought: “This could work,” ‘ he says.

‘We were hired to design a permanent theatre space,’ says Matt Wright, a co-founder of Pianodrome. ‘It breaks down the division between audience and performer. You’re sitting on an instrument while you watch and listen to someone play.’ …

“Wright says the arrangement of benches rather than having separate seats is more appropriate to social distancing: ‘You can space people out but it doesn’t look so stark as having empty seats.’

“For Binns, the project has grown out of a respect for people’s deep connection to their individual instruments and the hopes they have when they pass them on. ‘People have an extraordinary emotional attachment to their instruments and would be heartbroken to see them go in a [dumpster]. We’re giving pianos a new life.’ ”

More here.

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Photo: Everett Collection 
In the early 20th century, audiences crammed into theaters to see silent films accompanied by piano, organ, or orchestra. This film starred William S. Hart

Do you ever think about what an art it was to accompany a silent film? At the website Atlas Obscura, Jessica Leigh Hester has a great post about people who crave the experience today

“Sitting at a Steinway piano in near-darkness, Bernie Anderson flicks his eyes between the keys and a movie screen. Over his right shoulder, nearly all of the 203 seats in the Bruno Walter Auditorium on New York’s Upper West Side are full.

“These enthusiastic viewers have escaped the biting January wind for a screening of the ‘Silent Clowns’ film series. Anderson is set off in a corner of the stage, so as not to distract from the daring, hapless antics. His fingers fly and flutter, and give the cinematic shenanigans an extra dimension.

“He gamely tackles One Week, a 1920 short starring Buster Keaton, in which the master of physical comedy constructs a home from a do-it-yourself kit. It’s no spoiler to say that it doesn’t go well. The porch roof leans, and the windows are askew. When the house needs to be relocated, it gets lodged on some railroad tracks along the way. Anderson’s live melodies invigorate the charming foibles.

“The music is amiable when Keaton strolls with his new bride. When a storm spins Keaton’s sorry house around, Anderson’s playing evokes a vortex — swirling and insistent. The sound grows frenzied as a train finally reduces the slapdash home to splinters.

“The audience is devouring the century-old hijinks of the bill’s four comedic shorts. Laughter erupts regularly, gut-deep and contagious. ‘Oh nuts! Nuts!’ one man chortles when Laurel and Hardy tread, theatrically, on a heap of nails in The Finishing Touch. Other viewers can’t stop themselves from swapping corny puns as the gags pile up. ‘He got plastered,’ someone whispers to a friend as paint and glue cover a character’s face like meringue. …

“The phrase ‘silent film’ is, of course, a misnomer. Screenings of the 1920s were hardly quiet. The soundtrack for any given showing depended, in large part, on the setting. At deluxe movie palaces, films were often accompanied by entire symphony orchestras. …

“What they played varied by movie and musician. An orchestra conductor might rifle through a large library of sheet music to compile a patchwork score, [Scott Eyman, author of The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution, 1926–1930] notes.

“Some were dashed off quickly, [and] sounded predictably derivative or cheesy. Tawdrier examples relied on snippets of familiar tunes to do some heavy thematic lifting, such as walloping viewers with ‘I’ve Been Working on the Railroad’ when a train barreled past.

“As an alternative, a conductor or individual accompanist might rely on a cue sheet. … One for another Keaton film, Sherlock Jr., for instance, primes accompanists to stay tuned for the moments when a ‘man buys a box of candy,’ or ‘man with black mustache leaves house.’ The sheet recommends measures by Irving Berlin and ‘On the Mill Dam,’ a banjo tune that evokes galloping hooves. …

“Performances are similarly variable today, depending on the accompanist and instrument of choice. ‘I try to be as authentic as possible,’ Anderson says. But there’s a lot of debate about what that should sound like.

“If a score or cue sheet for a given film survive, Anderson tries to track them down. Some never existed, others have been lost to time and neglect, and still more, he has found, just aren’t very compelling. [Anderson says,] ‘Whatever’s there, I try to use.’ ”

Atlas Obscura, here, goes into a lot of additional detail, if you are intrigued. You can also see an impressive pipe organ which, along with a 110-piece orchestra, used to accompany movies at the Roxy Theatre. Wouldn’t you love to go to one of these contemporary reenactments?

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Photo: Craig Barritt/Getty Images for Sing For Hope
Jon Batiste performing on June 5 at the 6th Annual Sing for Hope Pianos Kickoff Event at 28 Liberty Plaza in Lower Manhattan. You may know Batiste from Stephen Colbert’s Late Show.

Many of the artists, musicians, and theater people who live and work in New York City believe in the importance of bringing the arts to children in underserved schools. And they are turning their beliefs into action by supporting Sing for Hope.

On June 5, Sing for Hope sent out a press release on the unveiling of 60 new artist-designed pianos destined to go to public schools after a summer on the streets.

“Late Show with Stephen Colbert bandleader and Sing for Hope Board Member Jon Batiste kicked off the performances at 12 noon, followed by a special performance of Bach’s Prelude in C performed by 45 pianists simultaneously on 30 Sing for Hope Pianos. Other performances included renowned pianist Michael Fennelly, who played Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue.’

“Each year, Sing for Hope selects local and international artists to create unique piano artworks that are placed in parks and other public spaces for anyone and everyone to play. This year, through a special partnership with the New York City Department of Education, Sing for Hope will place all of the Sing for Hope Pianos in permanent homes in NYC public schools after the pianos’ time on the streets, benefiting an estimated 15,000 New York City school children. …

“This summer marks the placement of the 400th Sing for Hope Piano to date, making NYC host to more street pianos than any other city in the world. …

“In time for the big reveal of the 2017 Sing for Hope Pianos, the world’s first-ever mobile app for street piano discovery and engagement is now available. The app helps people to discover, visit and play the pianos – and then share their experiences via social media. Now in its third year, the app will allow people to take curated tours of the pianos, discover special concerts by artists and performers taking place at the pianos, and sign up to give their own pop-up performances on the pianos. The app, designed and developed by Craver Inc., is free to download and available in the App Store.”

More here.

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I was delighted when Will McMillan asked me to review his Blame Those Gershwins CD, with music composed by Steve Sweeting, who also is on piano.

I think the first time I became aware of singer McMillan was in a production of the musical Tortoise, in which he played a sweet, low-key guy unimpressed by the hectic modern world. But I may have seen him in television ads when he was a little boy. He’s been performing that long.

I’ve listened to this CD several times now, and I’m really loving it. The title song playfully borrows themes from the greats — the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, and more. It tells the story of a fan who finds more comfort in the American Songbook than in the unreliable world of romance (but who is also able to poke fun at himself).

I ought to think twice;/Should I really be relying on Kurt Weill for advice?/Life doesn’t rhyme like lyrical knowledge/You get from Rodger and Hartenstein College.

The lyrics for that song are written by Sweeting, who wrote the words for several of the other songs. The joyful “Bounce to the Wave,” with words by Betina Hershey, had me thinking of swing dancing but may suggest other bouncy activities to you, including children jumping on a new mattress. One tune was created for a lovely ee cummings poem that I wish we had known about when Suzanne and Erik got married. The cummings poem we chose was more obscure. In fact, I told the congregation, “We don’t know what it means, but we like the way it sounds.” (“Not even the rain has such small hands.)

McMillan wrote the lyrics to several songs, including “Stuff,”  in which he ponders his good fortune in experiencing the beauty and peace of nature and compares those wonders to other “stuff” we collect in our getting and spending world. He asks, “What have I done in some other life, to be blessed with this stuff,” reminding me of an uncharacteristically plaintive Elaine Stritch singing “somewhere in my youth and childhood/I must have done something good.”

Sweeting’s gentle, wistful persona in “Wait” is self-critical for hoping that something wonderful will happen without action on his part — and for being so resigned. “I sit and watch a year or ten just slip away/I let life come to me,/If it doesn’t,/Say it wasn’t meant to be.”

I really loved each song for its different strengths: the carefree “Let’s Go to the River,” the hopeful “What Am I Doing Alone,” the wise and accepting “Let It All Go,” in which Sweeting suggests that if a poem fails to flow and a friend fails to know when you need a friend, “Maybe the answer/is to love a poem and to write a friend.”

This is music for the thinking music lover. It is thoughtful without being cerebral. It doesn’t talk down to the listener. The questioning, patient vibe suggests a tentativeness that is a kind of strength, a self-knowledge that is OK with not having all the answers and an openness to receiving the joy that is offered. Amazon has the CD. And iTunes. It’s going to be my companion in the car at least until I have all the lyrics memorized.

Oh, and kudos to Doug Hammer, McMillan’s longtime piano collaborator, for the recording and mixing on this one.

McMillan and Sweeting’s launch party is October 2 in Somerville, Mass. Call 617 628 0916. Or check Brown Paper Tickets online.

Will McMillan and Steve Sweeting, the guys behind the jazzy, bluesy CD Blame Those Gershwins

Will McMillan & Steve SweetingA

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Recently, I read an article explaining why beautiful music is often heard flowing from a particular soup kitchen in New York City.

Michael Wilson wrote at the New York Times, “The church’s soup kitchen program fills quickly, bringing a din of chitchat and the scraping of chairs on floor tiles and the thud of trays being knocked against the inside of a trash can. But above it all, each and every weekday, hovers another sound, wholly unexpected: the clear, clean notes of a concert grand piano, there in a far corner. …

“The man at the piano, 61 years old, with a head of cropped gray hair bobbing in time over the keys, plays on, for two hours straight, as anonymous an entertainer as one is likely to find in this town.

“His name is Scott Croly. His most recent job was driving a truck, and that was a while ago. He is just on the roof-over-head side of homelessness, staying at a girlfriend’s house while he looks for work. Suffice it to say that when he first started visiting the soup kitchen some 13 years ago, it was not because they had a piano.”

The piano program, writes Wilson, “started with a former naval cryptographer on the Upper West Side, George Van Pelt, 90, who served in World War II and Korea and, along the way, taught himself to play the piano. He was visiting a friend who helped run a soup kitchen in San Francisco, and pitched in himself, chopping vegetables while a woman banged away at a piano. But the people there enjoyed it. She moved away, and he thought he could do better, and did, and after performing there many times, came back to New York with that old familiar bug bite. Mr. Van Pelt figured, rightly, that soup kitchens weren’t turning away pianists, and he heard about the Church of the Holy Apostles. ‘I gave them a hundred bucks to bribe them to let me play,’ he said. …

“Barry Weiss, a member of the Peace of Heart Choir and a pianist out of the American Songbook, plays on Fridays. A classically trained Armenian pianist, Jeannette Chirikdjian, plays on Mondays after several years of serving food at the lunches.

“ ‘It makes them happy,’ she said matter-of-factly before launching into Chopin’s ‘Grande Valse Brillante.’ ”

Read more at the Times. And watch the  Stephen Farrell video interview with one of the piano players here.

Photo: Andrew Renneisen for The New York Times.
The Holy Apostles soup kitchen in New York has a grand piano.

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The NY Times contains a Science section on Tuesdays, and it always has delightful tidbits. Today Sindya N. Bhanoo writes that if you had music lessons at a young age, the experience may benefit you in old age.

“A new study reports that older adults who took lessons at a young age can process the sounds of speech faster than those who did not.

“ ‘It didn’t matter what instrument you played, it just mattered that you played,’ said Nina Kraus, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University and an author of the study, which appears in The Journal of Neuroscience.

“She and her collaborators looked at 44 healthy adults ages 55 to 76, measuring electrical activity in a region of the brain that processes sound.

“They found that participants who had four to 14 years of musical training had faster responses to speech sounds than participants without any training — even though no one in the first group had played an instrument for about 40 years.” More here.

Now, of course, I am looking back and trying to count how many years of piano lessons I had as a kid. I’m sure it was at least the four Kraus deems necessary. But I hardly ever practiced, so probably the effect was small.

The serious pianist below was sitting on my lap when the picture was taken in 2011.

at-the-piano

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Luke Jerram’s street-piano movement is coming to Boston. We blogged previously about the artist here (his solar chandelier installation) and here (the street piano concept).

The pianos will be scattered all around Boston, and everyone is encouraged to play. The Boston website says, “Touring internationally since 2008, Play Me, I’m Yours is an arts project by artist Luke Jerram.  When the project goes live in Boston on September 27, over 1,000 street pianos will have been installed in 37 cities across the globe, bearing the simple invitation to Play Me, I’m Yours! The project has already reached more than four million people worldwide.

“As a thank you to millions of loyal patrons and to celebrate its 75th anniversary season, Celebrity Series of Boston is presenting Play Me, I’m Yours ‘the Street Pianos Boston Festival’ from September 27 – October 14, 2013.”

More here. The website also provides details of where all the pianos will be found starting Friday.

YouTube video: Dani Rosenoer of Three Days Grace punching on a street piano @ Cleveland.

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I blogged here about the late Jane Scott, who was still reviewing rock bands into her 80s. Today I thought I might write on a couple mature gals in wheelchairs who write a political blog on WordPress. Unfortunately, their language is too salty for a blog associated with Luna & Stella. So I’m going to tell you about a jazz musician who, having been rediscovered in his 80s in a nursing home, and is back in the business.

As Dan Barry writes in the NY Times, “For years, the donated piano sat upright and unused in a corner of the nursing home’s cafeteria. Now and then someone would wheel or wobble over to pound out broken notes on the broken keys, but those out-of-tune interludes were rare. … Then came a new resident, a musician in his 80s with a touch of forgetfulness named Boyd Lee Dunlop, and he could play a little. Actually, he could play a lot, his bony fingers dancing the mad dance of improvised jazz in a way that evoked a long life’s all. …

“And so Mr. Dunlop would have remained, summoning transcendence from a damaged piano in the Delaware Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, his audience a couple of administrators, a few nurses and many patients beset with dementia, loneliness and age — were it not for a chance encounter … .

“In the spring of 2010, a freelance photographer named Brendan Bannon arrived to discuss an art project with nursing home administrators — and Mr. Dunlop greeted him at the door. … A bond quickly developed, and before long Mr. Dunlop invited his new friend to hear him play what he referred to as “that thing they call a piano.” Mr. Bannon, who knows his Mingus from his Monk, could not believe the distinctive, vital music emanating from a tapped-out piano missing a few keys.

“ ‘He was a beautiful player,’ Mr. Bannon says. ‘He was making it work even though it was out of tune.’ ” Read the whole story.

I told my kids that I used to hope I’d make a splash before I was 40. Then before I was 50. Now I’m thinking 90 is more realistic.

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My friend Alden, the oboist, is in considerable demand around the area. A good oboe player is hard to find, and he is very good. I have seen him solo with the Charles River Wind Ensemble and also take part in a lovely performance of Handel’s Messiah.

On Saturday night Alden played oboe with the Melrose Symphony, where a young piano soloist got a nice ovation. Alden writes, “In fact, the audience clapped between each of the movements he played. It was such a nice reception because he really is so talented and such a genuinely sweet, talented kid.” Read about it here.

The Melrose Symphony bio says, “Kadar Qian, 13, is a native of Westford, MA. As an award-winning pianist he has appeared with the Salem Philharmonic and Cape Ann Symphony in addition to over 60 performances in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York City. Qian recently appeared on the NPR radio show From the Top performing the Goldberg Variations by J.S. Bach, heard locally on 99.5 All Classical. Qian is a high honor roll student at Stony Brook School in Westford and has been a member of the math team since third grade, winning top prizes at the Academic Math League competitions. He was recently elected as Vice-President of the student body.”

Here he is playing a Chopin Waltz.

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