Piano 2000 Dazzles on Its Opening Night

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The National Symphony Orchestra's "Piano 2000 Festival" got off to a rousing start Wednesday night in the Kennedy Center's intimate and acoustically delightful Terrace Theater. This program, part of the Fortas Chamber Music Concerts, featured an eclectic selection of rarely heard works for one or two pianos and a bewildering combination of hands.

The concert opened on a note of uncertainty with Joseph Kalichstein's attempt at Johannes Brahms' arrangement of Johann Sebastian Bach's famous "Chaconne" from his "Partita in D minor for Solo Violin." Brahms' infrequently performed left-hand version of this piece is deceptively simple at first, but becomes dense and complex. It requires flawless legato and clean pedaling. Even then, arm and wrist fatigue can take their toll on a performer. Mr. Kalichstein's gifts were up to the task, but he seems not to have rehearsed the piece adequately. This brought muffed notes, rushed passage work and muddy pedaling.

Mr. Kalichstein returned, accompanied by pianist Sara Davis Buechner and NSO Music Director Leonard Slatkin in Maurice Ravel's brief "Frontispice" for two pianos and five hands, an oddly surrealistic piece operating at different tempos. Maestro Slatkin conducted and occasionally contributed the fifth hand to the effort, seemingly a musical cross between enigmatic Eric Satie and atonal Arnold Schoenberg.

The first half of the concert closed with something different: A small grand piano with the top removed was hauled center stage and outfitted with a steel ruler, rubber-edged squeegees and a microphone, enabling pianists Lambert Orkis and James Primosch and "piano assistant" Jan Orkis to perform George Crumb's "Celestial Mechanics: Cosmic Dances for Amplified Piano, Four Hands (Makrokosmos IV)."

Mr. Crumb, a postmodernist who hails from West Virginia, prefers the atonal idiom - which I do not - though it worked tolerably well in this piece. The work traces its lineage back to John Cage's pieces for "prepared piano," which were popular among the cognoscenti in the 1950s and 1960s. In his own short works, Cage outfitted the traditional acoustic piano with anything from paper clips to rubber erasers under the strings to produce odd, percussive and sometimes buzzy sounds.

If anything, Mr. Crumb's take on the prepared piano is more fully realized than Cage's. With allusions to Igor Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" and Bela Bartok's "Mikrokosmos," "Celestial Mechanics" morphs into its own musical genre, a cross between New Age and the Gyorgy Ligeti background music in Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey." Enjoyable in its own right, as atonal music rarely is, "Celestial Mechanics" explores at length the usually unimaginable harmonies lurking inside the piano case. The complex score frequently requires the pianists to play the piano strings in various ways, causing the instrument to sound at times like a percussion section, an aeolian harp and a zither. These effects are further amplified by a microphone, rendering an echo effect without benefit of a synthesizer.

Even 30 years ago, music such as this sounded harsh and out of place. But after all the movie soundtracks I've heard during the same period - horror films, sci-fi flicks and assorted space operas - Mr. Crumb's music is beginning to sound mainstream. Although the music is difficult to perform, Mr. Orkis and Mr. Primosch did a bang-up (oops) job, occasionally assisted by Mrs. Orkis, who mostly turned pages of this unusual score. Occasionally she dived into the case to help out in the more complex passages, right down to the seancelike knocking near the end.

The concert's second half opened with Mr. Orkis returning to perform Stravinsky's "Five Easy Pieces for Piano, Four Hands," accompanied by Mr. Slatkin. Stravinsky's short works are ephemeral and contain some echoes of his larger orchestral pieces. But they proved to be great fun. …