By Dennis Polkow
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has done a variety of multi-week festivals over the years, usually devoted to a single composer. But this year, get ready for the first CSO festival ever to spotlight a particular instrument, the Keys to the City Piano Festival.
The brainstorm of pianist Emanuel Ax, who will host and perform throughout the festival, Ax wanted the festival to “put the spotlight on the piano and make the piano a little more friendly for people.”
“We figured we can’t just do piano concertos,” explains Ax, “because there is nothing different about that. There will be some normal piano concerts because this is such a big piano town, but we also wanted to do some things that are different.”
Using the CSO’s own “Day of Music” model of a concert lasting all day long was one way to accomplish that goal, which in this festival became Sunday’s free Chicago Piano Day. “I love this idea of having all of these different pianists on the same day and the audience not just coming in for a concert from eight to ten in the evening but more like it was 200 years ago when you could have a five-hour concert where people came in and out as they pleased.”
Another important aspect of the Keys to the City Piano Festival is that the Sunday Chicago Piano Day will even have pianos placed throughout the hall for patrons to play, even if they have never played the piano before. Patrons can even sign up for a free piano lesson. “People can go and bang on them,” says Ax. “One of the messages we hope to get across is that it’s never too late to play the piano. Violin? Maybe not. Flute, you need a lot of breath and all of that, but the piano, you just walk up to it and you’re playing it. I meet more and more people who are saying, ‘You know, I have always wanted to play the piano and I’m taking piano lessons.’ And I hope we’ll keep getting that message out like a slogan: it’s never too late for the piano.
“I still believe that even though you go and see Rafael Nadal hit a tennis ball you want to go and do things on your own and there is nothing like doing it yourself. I am a huge sports fan and I see a lot of analogies between sports and playing an instrument. I think the idea that you get better when you practice something, you do something that makes you better at whatever field it is, your brain improves, it’s a great feeling. And it’s fun.”
Ax also believes that the popularity of spectator sports is directly proportionate to how many of the spectators have participated in sports. “If no one threw a ball around, we would not go into a stadium. We have to remind ourselves that we, the people who are onstage, have to somehow reinstitute that connection between people who are playing instruments and performers since they are also the ones that will probably come and listen to us. We talk a lot about educating kids, which is wonderful, fantastic and crucial, but I also think that because people are living longer and have more time, we also need to think about that aspect. People whose kids are grown, like my kids, who are out of the house, which means I have more time now to practice the piano, or to hit the tennis ball, or whatever it is.”
Another gap Ax is seeking to address is the gulf between the professional musician and the amateur musician, or as Ax puts it, “someone who plays only for fun.” “You know,” says Ax, “when Beethoven wrote the Triple Concerto, the piano part was for the Austrian emperor; Beethoven wasn’t going to play it. When I go to Amsterdam, I have a quartet of lawyers who are wonderful people, who I stay with and we play through chamber music every time I am there. We don’t play public performances, we play through all the big quintets. The first time I heard the Mozart g minor string quintet was here in Chicago with Nathan Milstein and four doctors! I was his accompanist and I was twenty-three years old. He came to Chicago to play and never played publicly: he cancelled the concert because of a backache but two days before that he played the Mozart g minor quintet with these doctors!”
To that same end, Ax has invited an actor friend to come to the festival and play a piece with him during Chicago Piano Day. “A few years ago I met David Hyde Pierce, Niles of ‘Frasier.’ He’s an amateur pianist and plays very well, and I thought, we should get him for the Master of Ceremonies. So he’s hosting the free Sunday Chicago Piano Day and we’re going to do a two-piano piece that was written for us by Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky, who lives here. David plays very well. The fact that he is not a professional pianist is perfectly fine. He’s been practicing, in fact we both have, and we will have rehearsals and we should be able to do a pretty decent performance. I just love the idea of doing that.”
“What happened was that Manny literally called me up and said, ‘I have an idea,’ ” explains Pierce. “We met in a coffee shop and he told me what it was and the idea that I would have to play a piece of music with him. My first response was that he was insane, for an artist of that level to even talk about playing with me. My second response was, how could I possibly turn down the opportunity to play something with him?
“The piece itself is very modern, very beautiful, very otherworldly,” says Pierce. “We’re going to play that and I think we may have an encore of something a little more concrete. It’s very much within my technical ability, but I’ve worked a lot on it. The counting in it is very complicated and the relationship between the two pianos sort of captures the mood. It’s difficult enough that I have really had to devote myself to it, but not so difficult that I think this will be a train wreck.”
Pierce says that he began taking lessons when he was eight years old. “Mom and Dad made all of us kids take piano lessons and I started taking them not because they wanted us to be musicians, but because they thought that was what civilized people did. So we all studied with the same piano teacher.
“My parents were very keen on my getting a very comprehensive liberal arts education and were very scared that I would specialize and try to become a professional musician. That’s why I went to a university rather than a conservatory. One of the reasons that I ended up going to Yale is that it had such a great music program because that’s where I thought I was headed. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that I had a certain amount of stature within a very small town, but once I got into the world of serious professional musicians, my talent and my drive were not enough.
“And what has happened in later life is that I have been able to come back to music almost like adult education or something with a different perspective. There was a while in Los Angeles where I started taking lessons again from a Russian pianist, so that was great.”
When Pierce originated the character of Sir Robin in “Monty Python’s Spamalot” in Chicago previews and on Broadway, his love of the piano was even written into the show. “They wrote a piano cadenza in one of my numbers, so I played it onstage every night. If someone in the audience was there that I knew, I played a theme related to them. When [pianist] Stephen Hough came one night, I threw in a little bit of the opening of the Second Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto because he is famous for his recording of that concerto.
“One of the company managers gave me a picture of me as Sir Robin playing the piano and around the border were all of these signatures. At first I thought it was people in the show but I looked more closely, his mom managed classical musicians and had gotten just about every great concert pianist working now to write a message. Many of them knew of me because of ‘Frasier’ and it included Manny, Lang Lang, Yefim Bronfman, Garrick Ohlsson, Richard Goode, on and on. Every time I walk by it, I can’t believe it.”
Even though Pierce became an actor rather than a musician, he says that his acting career has been directly informed by the fact that he is a pianist by avocation. “I have been doing musicals in recent years—in fact I am preparing one now—and so of course, being a musician helps you sing and dance more organically. But even on ‘Frasier’ I feel that my comedic timing, my ability to work within an ensemble were all directly informed by my playing the piano. Yes, I do still play, although people frequently ask me to stop.”
The Keys to the City Piano Festival runs from May 23-June 12 at Symphony Center, 220 South Michigan, (312) 294-3000. The free Chicago Piano Day hosted by Emanuel Ax and David Hyde Pierce begins at 1pm Sunday, May 27.