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The sound of eight hands playing: Four pianists on two pianos to benefit immigrant support groups

  • Above: Deborah Gilwood, from left, Eugenie Malek, Estela Olevsky and Meg Kelsey Wright rehearse for “Joining Hands,” at Wright’s home in Northampton.

  • Deborah Gilwood, from left, Eugenie Malek, Estela Olevsky and Meg Kelsey Wright rehearse for "Joining Hands", Friday, June 1, 2018 at the home of Meg Kelsey Wright in Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Estela Olevsky, from left, Eugenie Malek, Deborah Gilwood and Meg Kelsey Wright rehearse for “Joining Hands,” at Wright’s home in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Estela Olevsky, from left, Eugenie Malek, Deborah Gilwood and Meg Kelsey Wright rehearse for “Joining Hands.” GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Estela Olevsky, from left, Eugenie Malek, Deborah Gilwood and Meg Kelsey Wright rehearse for "Joining Hands", Friday, June 1, 2018 at the home of Meg Kelsey Wright in Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Eugenie Malek, left, and Meg Kelsey Wright rehearse for "Joining Hands", Friday, June 1, 2018 at the home of Meg Kelsey Wright in Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Estela Olevsky, left, and Deborah Gilwood rehearse for "Joining Hands", Friday, June 1, 2018 at the home of Meg Kelsey Wright in Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Estela Olevsky, from left, Eugenie Malek, Meg Kelsey Wright and Deborah Gilwood will perform in "Joining Hands", Friday, June 15, 2018 in Sweeney Hall at Smith College. They are gathered at the home of Meg Kelsey Wright in Northampton, June 1. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Estela Olevsky, from left, Eugenie Malek, Meg Kelsey Wright and Deborah Gilwood will perform in “Joining Hands,” Friday, at Sweeney Hall at Smith College. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS



Staff Writer
Thursday, June 14, 2018

It’s got 88 keys, and in the hands of a talented player, it has a range of sound no other instrument can match. As Thelonious Monk once said, “The piano ain’t got no wrong notes.” 

Then how about two pianos, with four people playing them at once?

That kind of sound, Meg Kelsey Wright says, is “very orchestral.”

That’s what Wright and three other longtime Valley pianists are planning to offer their audience when they combine forces Friday, in Sweeney Hall at Smith College, for a benefit show for two Northampton organizations that work with immigrants. The “Joining Hands” concert includes a range of compositions, from classical to jazz to marching band music, that will feature two or four pianists playing at once.

“We think it’s a show that will not only be fun to listen to but fun to watch,” Wright said in a recent phone call from her Northampton home. “It can be a pretty tight situation with two pianists sitting side by side in this limited space and working with each other — it’s kind of a performance sport as much as a musical one.”

With a laugh, Wright added, “It’s the kind of situation where a background in yoga can be pretty helpful.”

Beyond that, the concert will feature music from several notable composers, including Mozart, Dvorak, Rachmaninoff, George Gershwin, even John Philip Sousa. And it will be performed by four friends who have long résumés as players and have performed with each other in various combinations over the years.

In fact, the four pianists — Wright, Eugenie Malek of Florence, and Deborah Gilwood and Estela Olevsky of Amherst — combined for a show two years ago at Buckley Recital Hall at Amherst College that was staged as a benefit for the Northampton Community Music Center. That “Two Grands, Eight Hands” show got “great reviews,” Wright says, and generated requests that the four friends do another another one “on this side of the river.”

Since then, Wright notes, she and her friends had been looking for another opportunity — and trying to find a time when their schedules would permit it — to do a second benefit show. Given all the recent controversy about immigration issues, both locally and nationally, they decided on a show to raise funds for The Center for New Americans, which offers education programs to immigrants and refugees, and the International Language Institute of Massachusetts, which has classes in English and eight other languages.

“We thought it would be a positive way to respond to this crazy situation,” Wright said.

All four pianists have extensive experience as players and teachers. Olevsky, a professor Emerita of piano at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has performed on five continents; Malek has taught at Smith and Mount Holyoke colleges and performed in the U.S., Canada and the Czech Republic; Gilwood has taught at UMass and Smith and performed across the U.S; and Wright has taught at UMass and the Northampton Community Music Center and toured Great Britain as an accompanist for the Hampshire Choral Society.

‘A lot of give and take’

The “Joining Hands” show, which takes place at Sweeney Hall at 7:30 p.m., will feature the work of eight different composers. Most of the pieces will be played by two of the pianists at a time — on either one piano or two — with the four players taking turns, while two compositions will feature all four players on two pianos: “Overture to The Marriage of Figaro” by Mozart and “The Stars and Stripes Forever” by John Philip Sousa.

Some of the pieces, such as a 1918 sonata for two pianos by 20th-century French composer Francis Poulenc, were specifically written for two pianos, while others have been arranged by other composers and musicians for more than one player or piano.

Wright says she and her friends have known each other for years and have played together in different combinations and with other musicians. For their new show, they got together at Wright’s house, all of them bringing some music they liked so they could find some common ground. “We had a potluck meal, and then we did sight-reading and played all day to figure out what might work,” she said.

Playing with other pianists is something of a rare treat, Wright says; the friends are used to performing in a variety of settings, from orchestras to choral groups to small chamber ensembles, in which the piano is more of an accompanying instrument (though they have experience as soloists as well).

“As an accompanist, you’re serving other soloists,” she said. “Here, it’s more equal. There’s a lot of give and take, a constant work of integration and balance ... everyone has a chance to be in the spotlight, but you’re also in the spotlight together. You’re working together to make the sound rich and balanced.”

Playing two pianos at once, or having two players share one, enables players as well to make full use of the instrument’s 88 keys in a way that’s generally not done by a single player, she notes.

Friday’s concert features 11 separate pieces altogether, most of them fairly short, said Wright, who notes that the variety of music seems a good match for the concert’s theme of immigration as a fundamental part of the American mosaic. There’s Rachmaninoff’s dramatic “Tarantella”; three bright Slavonic dances by Dvorak; the somewhat ragtime-esque “Through Eden’s Gates” by American composer William Bolcom; and variations on “I Got Rhythm” by Gershwin.

Wright says she and her fellow musicians are also grateful to Smith College for giving them to the chance to perform at Sweeney Hall. “The pianos there are absolutely beautiful, and the sound is so good,” she said. “We think it’s going to make for a great evening and a great community event.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

“Joining Hands” takes place Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Sweeney Hall at Smith College. Tickets are $25 in advance ($15 for seniors/students) and can be purchased at State Street Fruit Store, The Center for New Americans, and The International Language Institute of Massachusetts in Northampton; Cooper’s Corner in Florence; and A.J. Hastings in Amherst. Tickets at the door are $30/$20.