You know you’re at an unusual concert when audience members start taking smartphone videos of the piano – before it even makes a sound.
Scratch “unusual” and make that “out of this world.”
The keyboard in question, on Friday night in Benaroya Hall’s Grand Lobby, was a “prepared” piano belonging to Seattle composer-sound artist Trimpin. Festooned with magnets and robotic devices, it was lit up like something out of a Stanley Kubrick film. And it was activated by symphony music director Ludovic Morlot with a mere wave of his arms.
The occasion was the world premiere of Trimpin’s “Above, Below, and in Between,” a composition for kinetic instruments (piano, chimes, reed horns), nine symphony players and a wandering soprano (the sometimes ethereal, sometimes frenziedly deranged Jessika Kenney).
Morlot kicked the piano into action with a gesture-sensing Kinect — created for the gaming industry — and the expression on his face as he did so was priceless. He looked like a nervous kid, thrilled by the new toy he’d been given and delighted with the tricks it could do, but also clearly anxious that it might not work or that he might break it.
The piece’s five movements ranged from a futuristic ragtime (for keyboard only) to a surround-sound fantasia of pulsing piano, ringing chimes, blasting trombones and a singer who seemed to be channeling Yoko Ono, Louis Armstrong and soprano Cathy Berberian (Berio’s muse) by turn.
The reed horns (housed in blowers activated by the Kinect) were arrayed in a semicircle in back of the audience and were only faintly audible. The chimes, however, in tight sync with the piano, were downright celestial as they zipped in high-speed arpeggios back and forth over listeners’ heads.
The cheers that greeted Trimpin and the performers at the end of the piece were so enthusiastic that, for an encore, Morlot offered a second run through its third movement: a gradually intensifying rumbling piano drone, with Kenney improvising wordless vocals over it. In her second go-round, she hit notes both comical and dramatic, as she thrust her head into the souped-up piano as if to insist that banshee wails could outclass high-tech wizardry any day.
Trimpin’s piece was paired with three works by American composer George Perle (1915-2009) in Benaroya’s main hall. Morlot, who worked with Perle in the last decade of his life, described his music as “a very beautiful jigsaw puzzle.” That came through in the measured melancholy of “Molto Adagio” for string quartet, the intricate miniatures “Critical Moments” for piano, percussion and chamber players, and Perle’s alternately witty and dreamy small-scale piano concerto, “Serenade No. 3.” Perle’s widow, Shirley Perle, graced the evening with some droll, insightful comments on what makes his music tick.
The pianist was Michael Brown, a champion of Perle’s work. The jaunty precision he and Morlot brought to the music – especially in passages where Brown and percussionist Michael A. Werner had to keep in playful but fiendishly tricky unison – made a cool, clean case for a Perle revival.
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