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

Lyn Horton By

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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.

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