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Six pianos bring ecstasy to Toronto’s Koerner Hall

Seeing one grand piano in Koerner Hall is commonplace. Two are not unusual. But six gleaming nine-foot concert grand pianos arrayed on the Koerner Hall stage, or any stage for that matter – 54 feet of grand piano in total – well, now that's a bit different. And that's precisely the sight that greeted the audience filing in to Koerner on Friday night for Soundstreams's "Piano Ecstasy" concert. And if not ecstasy, the evening's musical entertainment was certainly joyous and captivating. In groups of two, three and eventually all six pianos, nine pianists in all presented a range of 20th and 21st century piano composition, ranging from the earliest, written in 1934, to a world premiere of a piece written just for this concert.

The piano is essentially a percussion instrument – it is just a big box of hammers and strings when all is said and done – and the percussive nature of the instrument was given full expression in at least two of the pieces on Friday's program: Canadian Colin McPhee's evocation of Balinese gamelan music, his Balinese Ceremonial Music, written presciently in 1934; as well as a piece that sounded remarkably like the McPhee, although written almost 40 years later, Steve Reich's Six Pianos, from 1973. But the piano can be lyrical as well, which we heard in Dimtri Shostakovich's charming Concertino for Two Pianos. It can also be showy and virtuosic, as it was in Witold Lutoslawski's Variations on a Theme by Paganini; or atmospheric and spooky, as it was in the world premiere of Glenn Buhr's Two Pieces for Three Pianos; or just plain mischievous, especially in the hands of the arch-trickster of modern music, John Cage.

Cage's pastiche of excerpts from Beatles songs, written very near the end of his life, opened the program, with all six pianos playing, weaving together a partly written out, partly improvised tapestry of fragments from Norwegian Wood, Michelle, Day Tripper, Yesterday, and many other classic Beatles tunes in a quirky, now you see it now you don't amalgam, typical of the style of the great gadfly of modern music, who would have been 100 this year. The Cage was followed by the Shostakovich brilliantly performed by two of the great pianists of our time , the Gryphon Trio's Jamie Parker and the wonderful Christina Petrowska Quilico, still as devoted to new music as ever.

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Next up was the McPhee, beautifully executed by pianists Simon Docking and Gregory Oh, perfectly recreating the sounds that McPhee heard in his trips to Bali, well-suited to the percussive nature of the piano, and opening up a sound world of repetition and intricate construction not to be taken up in Western music again for another 30 years. Then pianists Serouj Karadjian and Simon Docking tore into the pyrotechnics of Lutoslawski's Paganini Variations, a tour de force written in 1941 based on the same theme that composers from Brahms to Rachmaninoff had previously set. The Buhr premiere was jazzier in its spirit, with Buhr himself, Chris Donnelly and Tania Gill, doing the honours this time. The work's two movements balanced an opening based on a simple descending figure which becomes more and more intense as it works its way down the keyboard (three keyboards actually), against a jazzier second – Bemsha Passacaglia – inspired, perhaps, by the melodic lines that Thelonious Monk created for his famous Bemsha Swing.

But the hit of the evening was the Reich, close to thirty minutes of the haunting, trance-like pattern music the American composer is famous for. Listening to Reich is to take a trip through the universe, at one moment hovering in an intensely interior spiritual world, at the level of the atom, then hurtling off to the cosmos, to find reproduced there the same patterns, now writ unimaginably large. Interior and exterior, impossible levels of repetition opening up to moments of bliss, the Reich was beautifully performed by pianists Oh, Docking, Parker, Karadjian, Petrowska Quilico, joined this time by Russell Hartenberger with the mixture of robotic precision and human expression that makes Reich such a seminal figure. It was a fittingly joyous conclusion to what was an extremely original and satisfying evening.

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