21 Pianos (Skimpy It Wasn't)
© New York Times 09/27/03

The Winter Garden at the World Financial Center is undoubtedly one of the few spaces in which an ensemble of 21 pianos could almost seem lost in the surroundings. On Thursday night, for the finale of the "88 Keys" piano festival, the stage was set up like a three-tier wedding cake, the pianos arrayed in semicircles on the two lower tiers and the conductor, Antonio Ballista, at the top.

The prospect teetered between fascinating and horrifying. From a certain point of view, after all, a piano offers the harmonic and contrapuntal possibilities of a full orchestra in a single box, and those possibilities are greatly expanded when you have 21 of them.

On the other hand, increasing the number of pianos doesn't appreciably expand the instrument's tone palette. And 21 pianos can create a relentless din. Now and then, an intricately textured passage suggested that Mr. Lombardi took these considerations into account. Longer stretches of full-ensemble pounding to a four-square beat suggested he did not always bear them in mind.

Three of his works were performed, including the world premiere of a piece written for the occasion, "Threnodia for 21 Pianos," dedicated to the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks. People attending the concert, of course, walked past the floodlit site of the World Trade Center on their way in and out. As a response to the attacks, "Threnodia" is no more adequate than any of the other memorial works; most have been played once and filed quietly away.

That said, heard simply as a musical work, it was the best of the pieces here. Its delicate rippling textures, and the crescendos that swept through the work and subsided, created a variety and a sense of movement that showed what could be done with these forces. Its compactness was a virtue, too: "Threnodia" made its point in about five minutes.

The other works, both also composed for 21 pianos, Mr. Lombardi's "Sinfonia 1: The Four Elements" and "Sinfonia 2," together lasted another hour. They had their moments, the most memorable being a brisk, percussive and entrancingly tactile section in the upper register during the opening movement of the second one. And the degree to which 21 pianos can roar was explored in parts of the "Air" and "Fire" movements of the Sinfonia 1. But one can walk fairly quickly through the useful tricks of massed keyboards. Repetition makes them ponderous, especially without thematic substance.

The ensemble included several established new-music pianists like Jed Distler, Anthony de Mare, Beata Moon, Lisa Moore and Frederic Rzewski, plus lesser-known younger players. As a group, they played gamely and energetically.

- Frank B.
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