Monday, March 05, 2018

24 Pianists Playing Bach in a Mattress Factory

Composer, SF Conservatory professor, and Ross McKee Foundation Executive Director Nicholas Pavkovic welcomed about 100 people last Friday for a performance by 24 pianists of J.S. Bach's The Well Tempered Clavier, Book 2, which consists of 24 solo keyboard pieces that each have a two-part structure of Prelude and Fugue.

The concert took place in the third floor loft of the McRoskey Mattress Company showroom on Market Street where we were greeted by Robin Azavedo above, whose family still owns the century old company that donates their loft space for various artistic events. She apologized for the lack of heat in the building on a cold, rainy Friday night, but it was quite bearable and at least the service dog that was plopped down in the front row had a warm vest for comfort. Unfortunately, the dog also had a collar with bell-like rattles enclosed so that when it would stand up for a limbering shake, Bach competed with the tinkle of his noisemakers, and some of us wished for horrible things to happen to his oblivious human companion.

A few years ago, the pianist Adam Tendler and some friends in New York put together 24 pianists to perform The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, in the style of Mickey and Judy putting together a show in a barn, and he repeated the stunt in San Francisco at the McRoskey loft last year with a different, local cast of musicians. It was successful enough that Tendler decided to tackle the longer and more difficult Book 2, written 20 years later in 1742, and he warned the audience at the outset that it would be a marathon with many hills and valleys, but promised a wild, rewarding ride.

Tendler also set up a few ground rules, including "no applause by the audience after each pianist, I know it will be hard, but it helps in all kinds of ways including time." It seemed that half the audience followed along with musical scores on their laps, mirroring the various pianists who played from memory, from printed scores, and from electronic devices.

The 24 pianists ranged in ability and musicianship, with a few outliers who could successfully play a solo recital in Carnegie Hall and a few who were way overmatched by their musical selection. Most were more than adequate and it was fascinating to hear how varied their styles in playing Bach on a grand piano could be.

The spirit of the event was more relay race than Battle of the Bands, a communal effort by players and audience members alike, but there were a few pianists who stood out for me, starting with Allegra Chapman above playing #2 in C Minor with dizzying speed and pinpoint accuracy.

There are no tempo markings in the musical scores, so the pianists could play as fast or as slow and at whatever dynamic they chose. Anne Rainwater above played with such sympathetic musicianship it was difficult not to applaud at the end of her traversal of #6 in D Minor. I also liked Robert Schwartz's idiosyncratic take that felt almost jazzy on #8 in D-Sharp Minor.

Kevin Korth gave a fiendishly good performance of the #10 in E Minor, while Derek Tam used his experience as a harpsichord virtuoso to clarify the notes in the #12 in F-Minor. We were seated right behind the piano bench all evening and it was fascinating to watch those who went for a clean, pedal-free approach versus those who decided to go full-on 19th Century Romantic with lots of pedal.

After intermission, Keisuke Nakagoshi gave such an exquisite performance of #17 in A-Flat Major that the audience couldn't help itself and burst into guilty, rapturous applause after he finished.

I also liked the performance of #18 in G-Sharp Minor by Serene (above), and Laura Magnani closed the evening with a lovely rendition of the final #24 in B Minor.

After 3-plus hours of Bach keyboard music, instead of being bored or exhausted, everyone felt exhilarated by the experience.

It felt a bit like a 1960s Happening and if you get a chance to attend any kind of an encore, go.

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