A Grand Day at the Kennedy Center: 100 Pianos

Leonard Slatkin directs the group of conservatory students on the Kennedy Center's south plaza.
Leonard Slatkin directs the group of conservatory students on the Kennedy Center's south plaza. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Gail Wein
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, October 6, 2005

The attraction of Monday's Millennium Stage show was more performance art than musical performance. One hundred pianos filled the end of the Kennedy Center's south plaza, each with 10 nimble fingers at the ready. Part of the Kennedy Center's Festival of China, the concert was inspired by similar stunts in that country, where displays of up to 300 pianists drew crowds and broke records.

The pianists here included 96 conservatory students from the Juilliard, Curtis, Peabody and Manhattan schools, as well as Washington's own Levine School. One was 11 years old. That ensemble was anchored by four young Chinese talents, billed as the Musical Prodigies of Shenzhen. The feat required 50 page-turners, 13 piano movers, nine tuners, three hours to set up and prepare the instruments, and the generosity of one local music store, Jordan Kitt's, which provided the bulk and the brawn.

What is the sound of 100 pianos? Strikingly similar to the sound of, say, eight pianos -- and that's a compliment. Guided by Leonard Slatkin's meticulously square beat, the musicians held together remarkably well, especially considering that as a breed pianists aren't used to following a conductor at all. Slatkin himself allowed that "once a piece starts, it is kind of up to them to stay together."

The event's logistics contributed to the program's brevity -- under half an hour. "Originally we were going to have two other pieces to play for you," Slatkin explained, "but as the rehearsal grew later in the afternoon, the sun [made it] impossible for anybody to read the music." The pieces played -- a few Western classics and traditional Chinese melodies -- were arranged for two, four or eight pianists, with the parts massively duplicated.

In Schubert's "Marche Militaire," the group was able to convey the march with remarkable precision, clarity and the grace of an ultra-large dancer, not bogged down by its own sheer volume. "Little Sister of the Green Grassland" by Li Feiwen featured a thumping bass line, transforming the pianists into percussionists with the Eastern melody shining through over it.

The ensemble's attempt at boogie-woogie, in "Yellow Rock" by Helle Well, came off as stilted and blurry as a high school marching band playing the theme to "Rocky." On the other hand, "The Swan" by Saint-Saens was surprisingly musical, rather than muddy, though with Slatkin's deliberate direction it wasn't exactly magical. But it would be hard to expect a lot of subtlety from an ensemble that rivaled the roar of jets taking off from nearby Reagan National Airport.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company