Wednesday, March 28 marked the 11th annual Piano Project in which students and faculty of the piano studio tackle this three-concert marathon each year. Flashing fingers, pounds of sheet music, hours of intense focus—the event is a basically a one-day piano Olympics.
This year paid homage to the piano works of modern French composer Olivier Messiaen. Quirky and deeply religious, Messiaen saw colors in sound and took inspiration from birdsong.
The event served to showcase student talents alongside the seasoned skills of professors Gilbert Kalish and Christina Dahl of the music department. Each piano student and professor alike took on at least one of Messiaen’s vivid and powerful works. Through this cooperative scheme, the piano studio demonstrated its supportive community. Each of the three performances offered small glimpses into the collaborative experience of being a student in Stony Brook University’s music department.
Kalish jump-started the event with a short introductory address. No stranger to Messiaen, Kalish himself has performed concerts and recorded albums dedicated to the Frenchman. Informed by these experiences, Kalish highlighted the composer’s musical decadence, a theme clearly expressed in the musical interpretations of his pupils.
The Piano Project also supplemented its performances with the academic perspectives of professors Judy Lochhead and Peter Winkler. Lochhead’s lecture focused on Messiaen’s expression of religious devotion. Linking the divine to Messaien’s meditative and timeless musical figures, Lochhead set the stage for the grandeur performances that would follow. Later in the evening, Winkler discussed Messaien’s musical adaptations of birdsong. Winkler presented first a birdcall and then Messiaen’s musical imitation. Listening to these birdcalls offered the audience insight into Messiaen’s mysteriously rhythmic and textural gestures.
Pre-concert lectures are usually offered before orchestra and opera performances, but the Piano Project instead chose a more inclusive setting for these lectures. Lochhead and Winkler’s presentations wove seamlessly into the performances. The incorporation of academic, student and professional voices into one mammoth-sized event is what made the Piano Project different from most other musical events at Staller Center.
This collage of voices helped the Piano Project convey a vast amount of information in a short span of time. Performers divvied up three substantial works: Préludes, Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus and Visions de l’Amen. More than two hours long, Vingt regards was an especially challenging endeavor and was carried out with aplomb. While these split performances lacked coherency and displayed varying degrees of technical expertise, each pianist rose to the challenge. These formidable pieces allowed the individual voice of each performer to shine through. For more information on the Piano Project, please visit stonybrookpianoproject.org.