New York can boast an impressive lineup of marathon music events: the CMJ Music Marathon, the Bang on a Can Marathon, the Winter Jazzfest. Now add to the list the Grand Piano Marathon: a free event this past Monday celebrating the reopening of Merkin Hall after a nine-month renovation. The event, which kicked off at 2pm and lasted nearly seven hours, featured musicians playing everything from jazz, to contemporary, to Chopin.
I arrived around six and stood with a crowd of thirty or so listening to Gyorgy Ligeti's Poeme Symphonique in the lobby: four folding tables filled with metronomes moving at different speeds, gradually grinding to a halt. The performance was organized by Face the Music, made up of young music students from the Kaufman Center's Lucy Moses School and Special Music School.
Once inside the hall, I heard no fewer than six pianists of all stripes. Jimmy Roberts, composer of I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, cleverly mixed Vivaldi with the Beatles, Elgar with Paul Simon, and Richard Rodgers' '"My Favorite Things" with Beethoven's "Moonlight" sonata. John Medeski, of Medeski, Martin and Wood, pounded away at an improvised solo that threatened to send the Steinway off it's runners. Lisa Moore, a longtime member of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, played Frederick Rzewski's "Piano Piece No. 4" (1977) and "Dream of the Lost Traveler" (1997) by her husband, BOAC mentor Martin Bresnick (who was seated onstage during the performance.) Orli Shaham - brother of violinist Gil Shaham and wife to Concrete Frequency conductor David Robertson - cleaned our palates with a pretty selection of Chopin nocturnes, waltzes and mazurkas. ECM recording artist Anat Fort played occasionally adventurous jazz, at one point reaching into the lid to play the strings.
Sadly, the hall was half empty when it came time for the highlight of the evening: new music specialist Ursula Oppens playing the world premiere of William Bolcom's Ballade: a 20 minute masterwork that belies it's title with spiky dissonances and wild runs up and down the keys. For me, it brought to mind the best of Messiaen's piano music, full of bird-like trills and tone clusters. Oppens played the score - cut up and taped to the sheets of an artist's sketch pad - with technical brilliance and titanic, almost masculine force. Listening to her play, you really got the sense she could play just about anything - and has. Bolcom was in the audience, and joined her onstage for a loud standing ovation, pointing at Oppens in case anyone was in doubt who was largely responsible.
There are many more excellent performances on the Merkin schedule, including the Bang on a Can All Stars with Ivo Bittova on 2/13 and New Sounds Live with Nico Muhly and Philp Bimstein on 5/8; tickets available at the box office.