Sunday, January 24, 2010


Eight Hands: Variations on the Theme ‘Piano’
John Cale, Paul Grabowsky, Andrew Legg, Gabriella Smart
Theatre Royal
January 22, 2010

Anica Boulanger-Mashberg

Despite the show’s title, there were never more than two hands on the piano at any one time – each artist performed solo. Although if you had your eyes closed, you could have been forgiven for assuming that there was more than one musician playing; such was the energy, musical intelligence and pure scope of notes.

Andrew Legg indulged his love of, and expertise in, American gospel music. His discussion between pieces was enlightening, though when he recited lyrics it did undermine his assertion that the music ‘speaks’ without vocals. Certainly the music was rich, full, and powerful, but we are so accustomed to gospel as a physically uplifting vocal experience, that listening from our formal theatre seats to those songs distilled into an instrumental essence felt odd. Fantastic, but leaving you aching a bit to hear Aretha.

Gabriella Smart presented a delicate collection of works by 20th and 21st century composers, including Alvin Curran’s ‘For Cornelius’ – a highlight of the evening. The second section of this work, an epic Philip-Glass-esque experience, is a sustained, repetitive, pulsing collection of very close chords which (under Smart’s sensitive performance) was simultaneously meditative, tense, agitated, mesmerising, exhilarating, and yet incredibly still. Smart’s performance embodied a desperation for release and resolution, and at the same time as a desire to be fully and eternally suspended in that sound.

After interval, we were treated to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, à la Grabowsky. Parts were beautiful; parts were surprising; parts were jarring and quite hard work for an audience; all was focussed and intense. It was as though someone had swallowed Bach whole – along with plenty of alcohol – then hiccupped some back up after dinner; had a long sleep filled with nightmares about the meal; woke with a strange aftertaste in the morning; then went out for a Sunday brunch and recounted the whole story to a dear friend in the warm autumn sun. Perplexing, challenging, and quite remarkable.

Finally, Cale performed two short improvised works which echoed the repetitive and hypnotic second half of the Curran. Both works were warm, melodic, strong, quite peaceful and somehow magnanimous as an end to the evening. A gorgeous parting gift.

Just as there were only two hands at a time, so there was only one piano – but under each pair of hands it became a completely different instrument (in Cale’s case, literally, as an electronic echo/delay was added to the standard amplification). The variety of relationships between performer and instrument was apparent not just in musical style but in physicality – Legg and the piano worked as a team; Smart’s body curved around the piano as though it were fragile; Grabowsky sometimes treated the instrument as a hazard; and Cale spoke through the piano as clearly as if it were a voice.

With no printed program, each pianist gave their own introduction to their pieces (Legg and Smart offered extensive historical backgrounds, Cale simply announced titles, and Grabowsky didn’t speak at all – though Brian Ritchie was on hand to offer an introduction). This added to the sense that the evening was a chance to eavesdrop on each musician’s individual relationship with their work and with the instrument: variations on the theme of ‘pianist’.