I had heard about the Piano Push play project, started by Meagan McGeorge, and even passed a woefully locked (!) piano in Pioneer Square last month, but had so far failed to connect with the pianos until last Friday, when strolling at dusk past the Portland Art Museum, I heard the sounds of the Chopin b minor scherzo. In the warm air, the sound was like a hybrid element floating towards me, natural, but still thrillingly unnatural. Outdoor piano music is strange, yet it felt just right all the same, like dipping my toes in a warm brook. In the plaza which leads up to the Art Museum bookstore stairs, there are places for people sit on the steps facing the performer, walk through, or simply eddy in the center of space like warm water round a stone.
I was just in time for the last performance on the outdoor Push Play pianos, which have been in Portland for the past few months. A concentrated and sober Jesse Waldman of PSU was nimbly completing some of the seemingly endless recapitulations of the theme on a not entirely tuned piano (at least, it seemed pre-well-tempered in the key of b minor) while a very enthusiastic member of the public, (who might be labelled "transient", but probably has a preferred name, like Bob), conveyed his enjoyment by loud humming, whooping, weeping, and generally showing all manner of enthusiastic reaction to the music while sitting on a ledge not three feet from the performer. They say it was this way in the day of Mozart at the opera, and there were no open containers or throwing of peanuts, so I felt no compunction against this character; at the same time I marveled at the outdoor pianists themselves, who needed a little extra forbearance given the circumstances: the picture of unrestrained revelry right next to one of sober musical application is not often seen.
After Mr. Waldman finished the Chopin scherzo, singer Maria Karlin took the stage, accompanied by Meagan McGeorge. They started the slow, moving aria, "Lascia Ch'io Pianga" by Handel. Ms. Karlin's singing was authoritative and immediately captured the passersby. Her ornamentation on the repetition of the theme was solidly felt and unrushed, providing a luxurious languor to the outdoor setting. The sound lured people in to mill quietly in an undetermined manner in the open space of the plaza, like schools of fish near a possible food source. In addition to the fairly intentional audience seated on the steps to the museum bookstore, ten or twenty people paused, and more passed, all quiet. A couple hovered uncertainly and prayerfully for a few moments right in front of the singer and pianist and then simply plunged down on the spot in twain, as if they were being sucked down a whirlpool drain. Runners passing through the north park blocks paused on the ledge of the plaza, putting up their feet and slowly doing leg stretches in time to the music. A group of people on those wheel-bike things hovered like bees for several moments before getting a cue from their Star Trek-like commander and moving silently on. Ms. Karlin went on to sing Purcell's "When I am Laid," "Deh vieni no tardar" from Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, Puccini's "O mio babbino Caro," and "Asturiana" from "Siete Canciones Populares Espanoles" by Manuel de Falla. During one of the pieces, the increasingly avuncular Bob took out his harmonica and actually blew a note in tune. Pretty impressive.
Ms. Karlin and Ms. McGeorge gave up the piano to Asher Fulero, a pianist with a full-bodied piano sound, and a dramatic, impressive dynamic range. His grip on this piano really made it sing. His music has a pop/jazz sound, and after his first piece , his version of "On the Chin", by Tortoise, which sounded familiar, people were making guesses as to who the composer was. (No one knew the Tortoise tune and I myself was guessing Burt Bacharach).His second piece was inspered by Chopin's Impromptu in C minor, which he analysed harmonically as an OSU student and rewrote. It contains recognizable and tantalizing fragments of the Impromptu, but I couldn't identify it. It was during Fulero's impressive rendering of a crescendo to a forte in this piece when an art museum security guard approached Bob, who had just gone one step too far by making a general request of the audience for a light. He was motioned off the property and restricted to the park blocks, a drama resulting in a shouting and motioning that seemed to be a twilight pantomime of the piano music. Well done, Bob! You have to say he really feels things, and is a great improviser and art lover, even if his understanding of the classical piano recital etiquette is a bit tarnished. Mr. Fulero then peacefully went on to his last tune, "Squirming Coil," by Phish.
The piano was then taken up by other pianists, most of whom were PSU students. Not necessarily in order, some of them are: Theresa Silveyra, who gave a vigorously healthy, rhythmic version of "Sleepwalker's Shuffle" and "Nightmare Fantasy Rag" from "The Dream Rags," by William Albright; Meagan McGeorge, who played "Mysterious Barricades" by Couperin, and preludes by Galuppi and Kuhnau; and Liz Kohl, who ended things popularly with "Somewhere out There" from "Fieval Goes West".
After the recital, the soprano Maria Karlin explained the genesis of her connection to Meagan McGeorge: the two met in a disco band, named Ancient Heat, and went on to another one called Federale, which is in the spaghetti western genre.Mr. Fulero and Ms. Karlin know each other from OSU, where both studied music. Meagan McGeorge is the well-known instigator of the Piano Push Play project, which, if this recital is any indication, may become a wildly popular way to share piano music in urban settings.
After the recital, the piano was not at all left lonely, and was still being played vigorously around 10 pm, when I left.