'Lone wolves of the music world': Grand Band brings its six pianos to St. Paul

Grand Band features six pianos.Courtesy of the artist

May 15, 2018

Grand Band has been described as "a kind of new-music supergroup" by the New York Times. Founded in 2014, the piano sextet features New York City pianists Vicky Chow, David Friend, Paul Kerekes, Blair McMillen, Lisa Moore and Isabelle O'Connell. The acclaimed group performs a diverse repertoire including new music by composers such as Michael Gordon and Paul Kerekes, and arrangements of classic works, including those of Modest Mussorgsky, Gustav Holst and Leonard Bernstein.

On May 16, Grand Band will perform at the Ordway Center for Performing Arts in St. Paul, where it will premiere Three Fragile Systems, a commissioned piece by Missy Mazzoli.

Classical MPR spoke to Friend to get to know Grand Band a little better before its Twin Cities performance.

How did Grand Band get started? What inspired the idea of a piano sextet?

Grand Band started in 2014. We got together for a performance of Steve Reich's iconic work Six Pianos, to be performed at the Bang on a Can Marathon, an annual free new music event that is a longstanding NYC staple. Since getting six pianos together for the performance was such an undertaking, Bang on a Can asked us if we would play a few other pieces, as well, which we were more than happy to do.

While we all knew each other professionally, it's unusual for more than one pianist to be on the same gig, unlike most other instruments. In that way, we are something of the lone wolves of the music world. Having the opportunity to play with five other pianists was a rare treat for all of us, but we really thought it would be a one-time thing. However, our performance at the Marathon got a lot of attention and critical praise, and we immediately started getting inquiries about doing other performances and working with other composers on new collaborations.

Once we realized that this unlikely ensemble actually had the potential to be an ongoing endeavor, we put our heads together and decided to make it official — Grand Band was born!

Is there a designated person who gets Piano 1 or Piano 4, or do you mix it up with every upcoming piece?

Not exactly. While we tend to stay in position at the same piano throughout a performance, the actual part assignments can differ. For some of the pieces we play, it's important for the parts to be distributed in a certain order (to create spatial effects of sound traveling in a particular direction, for instance) or so that pairs of parts that relate closely to one another can be positioned close to each other, as well. Generally speaking, however, there are no hard and fast rules about who gets what part.

What do you feel are the strengths and weaknesses of such a unique ensemble?

The impact of having six pianos playing together is so unusual that it has an impact all its own. A single piano is already unique, in that it can play so many different notes and jump across such a wide range of pitches compared with most other instruments. This effect with a group like Grand Band really becomes exponential, and the result is really unlike anything that even most regular concertgoers might have heard before.

A weakness of this kind of group is that the logistics can be very complicated. Pianos are enormous, heavy, expensive instruments, and getting six of them together on one stage, in position, and in tune takes a tremendous amount of effort. Especially as a group based in the spatially challenged environs of New York City, this is an ongoing challenge — for instance, our rehearsal space is the Steinway factory!

What has been the general reception of Grand Band from the audience? We have generally had wonderful responses from audiences in NYC, throughout the United States and abroad. Because of the unusual nature of this instrumentation, most of the repertoire falls under the category of contemporary and/or new music. While some presenters can be a little wary about audience reception to a program in which every piece was composed after 1960, we have found audiences to be extremely receptive to the breadth of our programming. There is a degree of spectacle inherent to having a group of this many pianists playing together; however, we also feel that listeners are able to transcend the "novelty factor" of the instrumentation and ultimately leave a Grand Band concert having experienced some new musical insights.

What are the grand plans of Grand Band? Any pipe dreams you'd like to share?

The most basic dream would likely be just to continue having the opportunity to perform together. As previously mentioned, Grand Band was something of a happy accident, so every new performance or creative opportunity that comes our way is always exciting. More specifically, we have our sights set on recording our first album in the coming year and would also love to work collaboratively with other groups, perhaps on a concerto with orchestra!

How does it feel to perform on a stage with five other pianos

It is really a unique experience to perform in this instrumentation as a pianist. For starters, just the physical parameters of the ensemble is enormous! When it comes to the bread and butter of chamber music — listening, blending and cueing — everything happens on a much larger scale than in the more traditional groupings, like a quartet with strings. Cueing from one end of the ensemble to the other can sometimes feel a little bit like a musical game of tennis.

The type of listening that is required is also very specific. When pianists play chamber music, they are usually paired with other instruments that have a very different timbre of sound than their own instrument. By contrast, in a group with so many other pianists, the listening required to work together musically is especially focused and detailed. While pianists are usually "one of a kind" in a given chamber configuration, it's really lovely and unusual to be a part of a larger tribe in this way. In rehearsals, it allows us to speak in the sort of detailed technical way that is common in a string section, but uncommon for pianists who are usually a section of one.

Additionally, it's a wonderful experience to be part of an ensemble that is taking an active role in really paving the path for this relatively new instrumentation. If you're a violinist, I would think that it would be sort of hard to imagine what it would have been like to be a member of the first string quartet. In Grand Band, however, with every new performance and project, we are helping to build a new outlet for musical creativity that we hope will outlast us well into the future.