Pablo Ziegler and Lara St. John Play Piazzolla at Naumburg Bandshell
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Grand Band at (Le) Poisson Rouge

by Andreas Hager


What happens when six pianists walk into a bar? Grand Band's performance Tuesday night at (Le) Poisson Rouge was a chance to find out. Once upon a time piano duos were fairly common—but a sextet is not only unusual, it stretches the physical limits of most concert spaces. Instead of six grand pianos, the pianists played on six keyboards, “due to the stairs,” as one member quipped. Arranged in a candlelit circle with the audience surrounding them, this was a surprisingly intimate evening of minimalist music.

The group began with “My lips from speaking…” by Julia Wolfe. Inspired by Ella Fitzgerald’s “Think,” the work dissected jazz into riffs, rhythms, and bass lines. Here the keyboard substitution felt jarring, with a rather flat harshness stifling the wide dynamic demands of the score. Still, the music brought to mind a piano battle between Bela Bartók and Morton Feldman: banging rhythmic clusters that dissolved into near stillness.

Philip Glass’ “Closing” from Glassworks provided welcome contrast: a phosphorescent hymn, the piece represented minimalism at its most populist. The bright electronic sound of the keyboards fit more naturally here, adding just a touch of reverb to give a bell-like clarity to the upper register. The keyboards’ ability to sustain notes longer than acoustic pianos allowed the slow bass lines to generate a melody line closer to the original chamber-ensemble scoring.

Australian composer Kate Moore’s “Sensitive Spot” explored a more modern take on minimalism. Composed for piano with digital playback, Moore steps backwards from the rhythmic cycles of Glass and Reich, with a nod to Terry Riley’s seminal “In C.” With the ensemble repeating chords in a rapid steady rhythm, the competing sounds formed a hazy, indecipherable atmosphere. 

To complete the evening, Grand Band performed Steve Reich’s “Six Pianos." Relying on shifting phases of the same rhythmic material (he also has created a version for marimba), the work churned forward with unexpected textures. There was a certain tieback to the idea of jazz explored earlier in the evening, with spiky rhythms materializing from the combined efforts of twelve hands.

On the keyboards, this sense of randomness was diminished somewhat, as the electronic sound took out the variations in tuning that would have naturally occurred across the six instruments, flattening out the harmonic field. But the result still highlighted the central oxymoron found in Reich’s music: the consistency of the battling rhythms led to a sense of profound stillness.

Between numbers, the musicians spoke about the works informally, introducing each piece, while the diverse crowd hung onto every word. With the technical odds stacked against their favor, Grand Band performed a stylish set that highlighted both their technical accomplishment, as well as the joy they took in presenting this music.