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A Musical Feast's October 8 concert in Artvoice

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Dancing With a Piano by Jan Jezioro in Artvoice. Read more at

It is not all that often that you can attend a classical music performance and enjoy a completely different musical experience, but if you purchase a ticket to the season opening event of A Musical Feast in the Tower Auditorium at the Burchfield Penney Art Center on the Buffalo State College Campus on Friday, October 11 at 8pm, you will be in just that enviable position. The two featured performers on the program, modern dancer Melanie Aceto and pianolist Robert Berkman, will each interact with a piano in ways that go far beyond the usual use of that instrument in a concert program.

One of the best things about the annual June in Buffalo music festival is the possibility of discovering works by newly emerging composers that speak to the listener in previously unheard of ways. This past June’s festival was particularly interesting in the quality and depth of such works, including All Things Are Not Equal by John Chittum and States of Iron by Esin Gunduz, as well as the most startlingly original work presented at the entire festival, Liaison, a collaborative effort by composer Megan Beugger and Aceto, a work that will be performed for the second time ever on this program.

The premier of Liaison occurred under less-than-ideal circumstances on the last full day of the festival. For some unknown reason the time of the performance was moved up and the location was changed at the last minute, to an overly crowded room in the basement of Slee Hall, with the result that many would-be concertgoers arrived late and were left standing in the narrow doorway, or even further back. Adding to the confusion, a sizeable contingent of residents from a senior living community had been bused in, no doubt in expectation of a more traditional chamber music experience, and they unfortunately shared their disappointment vocally.

Nevertheless, from the moment that Aceto approached the piano and started slipping first her legs and then her arms into cuffs that were connected by strings to a mechanism that was built over the lidless piano, and that in turn were connected to the strings of the instrument, all the distractions fell away.

As Aceto continued her intricate ballet with the piano, the primeval sounds produced by her dancing movements resulted in a visual and aural experience that can only be described as hypnotically enchanting. Aceto’s superb interpretation was one of those rare performances that left the audience eager to see it immediately repeated.

Beugger was inspired to compose Liaison after meeting Aceto, on the suggestion of her teacher, UB professor of composition David Felder. The day after their initial meeting, an image of Aceto “pulling piano bows with her body was stuck in my mind and was completely alluring to me,” says the composer. “Melanie had a large role in the choreography. She would record a lot of improvisations of her on the contraption or, at other times, I would come with a pre-composed chunk, in which a lot of it didn’t work, either physically with the contraption or artistically. She would work through them with me and show me endless other possibilities that I never would have thought of, being mostly limited to what physical moves I could do as a non-dancer.”

Tom Tucker and Gary Casarella worked for over nine months, designing the mechanism that allows the dancer to “play” the piano, a design that was further refined during the later stages of the composition/rehearsal process. “The success of the piece was due to all the people that were committed to it,” says Beugger. “Not often as a composer do you really get to be a part of large team, where everyone wants to see the piece happen as much as you do.”

Aceto is also featured in the world premier of Defencet by Israeli composer Moshe Shulmant who says “The dancer has to wear partial fencing gear and the music is mostly atmospheric with one main melodic theme, a quote from Miroslav Skorik’s theme for Paradjanov’s film Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors.”

Robert Berkman has probably done more than anyone else in the country to help preserve the rich legacy of piano rolls composed for the pianola, or player piano. Since he started working in 1975 for the Buffalo-based QRS, the world’s last piano roll manufacturer, he has produced innumerable reissues of historic roll recordings and also created a constant flow of new recordings. This past May he was invited to demonstrate his artistry at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, where he presented a well-received program of music by composers associated with the Sergei Diaghilev’s famed Ballets Russes as part of its celebration of the centennial of the premiere of Stravinsky’s epochal score for the ballet Rite of Spring.

Berkman will demonstrate the interpretive possibilities of the pianola through an eclectic selection of pieces, including Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau, featured on Berkman’s recent Washington recital, a work he says he likes to play “because it defies most people’s expectations, evanescence not being a quality usually associated with the player piano.” The most recent selection is from Conlon Nancarrow’s Boogie Woogie Suite, composed before he moved to Mexico City in the late 1940s to begin what was to be his life’s work on his Studies for Player Piano. Stops along the way will feature Bashraf, from a mythically-rare roll produced by Lebanese-American Alexander Maloof, “a sort of prelude in Arabic music,” says Berkman, “but this piece is really more of what was known in the teens and twenties as an ‘Oriental fox-trot,’” and include Joseph Achron’s Hebrew Melody, which features cellist Jonathan Golove playing the once lost, but recently reconstructed theremin cello, and Berkman using a roll for the piano part that was recorded a few years ago by BPO staff pianist Claudia Hoca.

Finally, Maurice Ravel recorded his well known Valses nobles et sentimental for a piano roll that “has plenty of problems,” says Berkman, “but I like the piece and enjoy the challenge of making the performance musical despite its problems.” He has continued to explore its potential since performing it at his National Gallery recital this past spring.

Tickets are $20 general admission, $10 for gallery members and students. For more information, visit