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Three Pianists Address the Keyboard at Northampton Center for the Arts, MA


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Rob Schwimmer, Arturo O'Farrill, Larry Willis
The World of Piano Series, Northampton Center for the Arts
Northampton, Massachusetts
February 1, 8, and 15, 2008

As a musical instrument, the omnipresence of a piano's sound commands attention. There is nothing that can sway us from the experience of the full-bodied sonorities. However, the ingredient for altering the nature of the sound is in the hands of the instrument's players. And for three successive weeks in February in a small hall at the Northampton Center of the Arts, about one hundred people had the chance to hear three very different ways in which the piano could be approached.

Rob Schwimmer

The first pianist in the series, Rob Schwimmer, had a lot to say. He was comfortable with words, but soon the piano became his primary spokesperson. Nothing that he did on the keyboard was without care, all of his pieces resembling the etude form because each was brief. But their concentrated brevity only maximized their value in telling stories while gently unveiling his childlike nature in communicating his love of his instrument.

Schwimmer's body is compact. His physicality translated to the certainty and solidity with which he placed his fingers on the keys. His compositional and improvisational delivery were equally sumptuous, reflecting a honed cultivation of intimacy and an acute sense of classical structure. His hands moved with graceful motion, fluidly sculpting the sensuality with which he ornamented his original compositions, including "Talk With My Dad" and "Holding You In My Arms" as well as selections from standard repertoire like "Never Never Land," which he combined in a medley with "Brother, Can You Spare A Dime."

Never once was his playing disconnected: his fingers could move swiftly hand over hand from mid keyboard into the treble in repeated runs and flourishes. His sound progressed from quietly melodic through explosive crescendos to sustained resonance. Tunes often emanated from chords rather than phrasing, his right hand exploring the treble tonality with elegance. Once established, tempos shifted as if to simulate the dynamic of verbal conversations. His arpeggios swept the keys with resonant power without sacrificing polish and detail. His adroit transposition of notes in a movement from a Chopin Sonata (#2 in B flat minor, Opus 35—the movement before the recognizable Funeral March) produced a controlled mounting climax, resulting in an insistent "groove" that proved to be a high point of the concert.

Schwimmer's concentration on piano was twice briefly diverted by the theremin, an instrument with which he is associated by reputation. The theremin, particularly the 1959 Moog model which Schwimmer brought, seems to be the kind of apparatus that would best be demonstrated in a science museum rather than a concert hall. Nonetheless, when Schwimmer regulated the invisible force fields that existed between two antennae to fabricate the sound, his performance proved riveting. Because he could not move anything other than his fingers of both hands without affecting the way the sound is produced, he had to stand at absolute attention and breathe as if he had gills. The sound that ensued, sometimes resembling an unaccompanied female voice, had a melodramatic quality which, as heard in relation to taped instrumentals, was thoroughly entertaining.

But to play the theremin was not the main reason Schwimmer had come to Northampton. He was there to exhibit his prowess as a pianist—an artist who exuded expertise, sensitivity, sheer humanness—from the thoughtful expressiveness of every trill and tremolo that rose from his right hand to the unquestionable sincerity of his whole being in his approach to the instrument.

Arturo O'Farrill

In the second of the piano series, Arturo O'Farrill spoke a piano language that was completely different from Schwimmer's. Son of Cuban bandleader, Chico O'Farrill, the younger O'Farrill is rooted in Latin and Afro-Cuban rhythms. And the first group of block chords that landed on the piano keys laid the groundwork for his personal story. From the compositions of Carla Bley to those of Wayne Shorter, Monk and his own originals, O'Farrill covered a gamut of music with his special rhythmic stamp and indefatigable flare.

There is great strength in this traditional rhythm. It is razor sharp, square, broad, open and totally enticing. Nothing can break it apart. As O'Farrill's fingers flew, volume and tempo vacillated right along with them. He sustained an unmitigated charge with double-handed expressivity. Arpeggios, ostinatos, and his stomping foot revved up the atmosphere. And at times, O'Farrill pedaled so hard that the piano shifted on its rollers. He found the extreme pitches of the keyboard without fail.

O'Farrill always established the theme of the music with his right hand while his left hand unfailingly and solidly kept the time in repeated figures so that the right could spread out within multiple accentuations and say whatever it wanted to emotionally and melodically. His timing was impeccable as he inserted a slight hiatus here and there before descending into rapidly fingered passages that elicited the idea of rippling water. The stunning codas were ripped across the keyboard with boundless energy.

Tunes that might have been pensively displayed O'Farrill tore open and ramped up, giving the heaviness of his touch permission to nail down and drive home the intentional conclusiveness of the music. The exception was an original love song dedicated to his wife, "Alisonia," in which pauses alternating with phrases of successive notes melted into various series of quiet chord progressions.

At his invitation, O'Farrill was joined by Joe Gonsalez, clave master and friend. The duet that ensued with bongos and congas joining the percussive piano lifted the dynamics of the music to a level where the audience was impelled to participate by clapping with the beat. The polyrhythms from the congas, matched with ostinatos pulsating from the piano keys, thoroughly energized the aural atmosphere. The kinetics, implied or physically felt, were unstoppable. Later in the program, Angel Gonzales and a Haitian comrade came to the performance area. The only element missing as the music from the congas, shekere and the piano rocked was a dance floor.

Larry Willis

The last concert in the series brought Larry Willis to the forefront. Willis is steeped in the history of jazz. His appreciation of it never waned either through the words he spoke or the songs he unwound on the piano keys. In both he projected a generous and reverent mastery of the language of his musical origins.

His even-handed method was pristine. He never missed a note, building moods and retaining a connectedness from note to note and chord to chord that magnified the essence of his expressive intent. His playing focused on the center of the sound that the piano could make. He was not trying to press the instrument into service beyond its normal range. That is not to suggest his approach was complacent. Far from it, the music flowed through his fingers like silken thread from a spinning wheel.

The texture he created caressed the spirit, even when the themes of his original compositions dealt with political issues. One such piece, "Ethiopia," began with a gentle touch to a repeated chord which expanded through a crescendo, resonating from the simultaneous work of two hands to a pause introduced with a treble flourish. The rests between phrases, the chords that grew louder then softer, the timing of every gesture provided more drama than any unrestrained, stormy flurry of notes. It was clear that the bass keys became friends to the treble keys in the way Willis related them together. It was equally apparent that the accents presented with the little finger of his right hand were a means to pose the questions that only the responsive resonance from the other nine could answer. The adamant alternation of chords and phrases as the piece ended amplified the process, lending the pianist's musical solutions persuasive significance.

Willis's talent supplied a complete package for the listener—nothing was left out yet nothing was overdone. He did not need to explode off his seat, create complicated figures, entangle his fingers or assault sensibilities with volume. Everything was simply scaled and in place. Regardless of what familiar or original tunes he applied his conceptions to, his ability to accommodate the demands unique to each piece, improvising confidently and radiantly on each, was without question his expression of a love of sharing the music.

There are probably more fine pianists in the world than there are fine pianos to play. The challenge is to attract audiences to hear these pianists exercise their capacity for expression. In the words of Rob Schwimmer, "let's hope there is room for us all."

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