Soundstreams “Piano Ecstasy”

How many pianos can you fit on stage in Koerner Hall? 

Soundstream Piano Ectasy

Six. The answer is six. Well, you could probably fit more if you tried, but six is how many there will be on stage on April 26th. I’m fairly certain six is the most number of grand pianos that stage has seen. (If anyone knows otherwise, please let me know in the comment section)

Soundstreams is presenting ‘Piano Ecstasy,’ a program of all-piano chamber music. What is chamber music, you ask? To paint a broad picture, chamber music is a work that involves two to sixteen players each on individual parts.

Now, when it comes to piano chamber music, it’s pretty common to see piano four-hands (one piano, two people = four hands), or piano duo (two pianists, two pianos). Anything beyond that is fairly uncommon, mostly due to logistics. More than two people sitting at a piano will begin to feel cramped, and few venues have more than two pianos on hand.

The nine pianists taking part in Soundstream’s ‘Piano Ecstasy’ come from very different backgrounds including jazz, new music, classical, and even Russell Hartenberger, whose day job is as a percussionist in one of Canada’s most eminent percussion ensembles, Nexus. I had a chance to chat with two of the pianists- Tania Gill and Gregory Oh.

There’s a certain unstudied wise quality about musicians who are so completely immersed in what they do. It’s almost like speaking to someone who sees the world in slow motion from an omnipotent view. They’ve gone so deep into the structure and layers of music that their minds seem to weave between what’s been written and the history and context of its creation. They know to listen for things that the rest of us don’t even know exist.

Hailing from the now-blooming Lansdown/Bloor neighbourhood, pianist Tania Gill strikes me as one of these musicians. In our short meeting, she illustrated the role her classical background played in her jazz writing. “I did my masters in Jazz Performance at U of T, and a lot of what I got out of that was from studying composition with classical composers; the graduate level 20th century analysis was amazing,” she explained.

Soundstreams Piano Ecstasy
Tania Gill

Her approach to music is refreshingly earnest and well-rounded as well:

The music I play lives somewhere between the worlds of the mainstream tradition of jazz music, improvised music, and time spent checking out other music making – I’ve played in army bands and latin bands. I like country music, I’ve studied and played classical music, and  I really admire people who can write good lyrics. I really like it when there are good words happening on stage, even if I’m not involved with it.

I couldn’t resist telling her about Jamie Parker’s recent interview in which he remarked: “Playing with multiple pianists is just like playing with more traditional chamber groups except that it’s a hell of lot LOUDER.” Tania paused before responding, “I’m not gonna get louder.. I’m not gonna hurt my hands. But, I can totally see that happening right away. When I’m improvising, if things are really loud in one zone, I’ll just not play there. Loud music makes me play less.. unless I have an electric keyboard, in which case, I’ll just really turn up,” she laughed.

Gregory Oh seemed especially enthusiastic about performing Steve Reich’s ‘Six Pianos’:
It’s almost spiritual in a way, because it gets away from the concept of performer as soloist, even gets away from chamber music. When you play Steve Reich, you have to separate your fingers from your ears. You’re not listening to your playing, you’re listening to the whole sound. You are not aware of yourself. Somehow, the process of listening to this sound is more fulfilling than playing chamber music.

Soundstreams Piano Ecstasy
Gregory Oh

Greg started talking about Colin McPhee’s ‘Balinese Ceremonial Music’ for two pianos and how McPhee was influenced by the sound of the gamelan, and the importance circumstance and context lends to a performance. He gave the well-known story of Joshua Bell playing unnoticed in a subway station as an example.

Sometimes we’re busy, sometimes Bach in a subway station is… <insert bad word here>.

I don’t want to listen to anyone playing Bach in the height of commuter rush. I don’t think it shows.. anything.

On the flipside, when you have the opportunity here to hear kinds of music that live and die through the resonance of their sound, like Colin McPhee’s piece, it’s a really good reason to take that opportunity.

There’s also a little-known piece by John Cage that consists of snippets of Beatles tunes, with the pianists playing off of stop watches.

Still not sure if you’re going to make it out to this concert? Listen to Greg:

I’ve never experienced sticking my finger in a blender. This is a good thing that I’ve never experienced it. But, then there are things – like, I’ve never experienced watching ballet with giant hairy men. I would want to. Maybe I wouldn’t like it, maybe I would, but it’s something you just wouldn’t get the opportunity to see again. I feel like this concert is something that I’ve never had the opportunity to see. I’ve been playing concerts for years, and gone to see hundreds of thousands of concerts. When else will you see six grand pianos on an acoustically perfect stage? 


Piano Ecstasy’ by Soundstreams

Koerner Hall, 273 Bloor St W.

April 26, 2013, 8pm. From $20.