One piano is grand.
Eight being played in unison?
Well, that’s much, much grander.
The University of Akron School of Music hosted its sixth MonsterPianos! concert Sunday at E.J. Thomas Hall.
The special show featured eight grand pianos arranged in a semicircle, 39 pianists dressed in tuxedos and black gowns — not all playing at the same time, mind you — a conductor, and a giant video screen broadcasting all the action.
“It’s an adventure,” admitted conductor Galen Karriker, UA director of bands and associate professor of music.
It’s also immensely popular in the community, as evidenced by the audience of nearly 1,300 people.
UA music professor Philip Thomson founded MonsterPianos! in 2006, borrowing the concept from the late pianist Eugene List.
The concert, organized by Thomson and fellow faculty member Mayumi Kikuchi, is a treat for the musicians as well as the audience, because it’s rare to have so many pianists playing together at the same time.
The piano is typically a solo instrument, after all, and pianists aren’t used to watching a conductor for direction.
The concert poses several challenges for the musicians.
One of the biggest is just the fact that they aren’t used to playing together as a group. They had practiced only six times before the final dress rehearsal Sunday.
Another challenge is that pianists are familiar with hearing themselves play. With so many other pianos, the sound blends together — of course, it’d be weird if it didn’t.
“You have to trust your eyes and not your ears,” said Ann Usher, UA professor of music and director of the School of Music, who performed at the event.
The concert, which lasted about an hour and a half, included Valse Brilliante by Moritz Moszkowski, Rondo a capriccio by Ludwig van Beethoven and the Battle Hymn of the Republic.
There also were some moments of levity such as when Zippy, the UA kangaroo mascot, led a piano-arrangement of the school fight song Win For Akron.
The concert featured faculty, students, alumni and invited guests. Some of those folks traveled from as far away as Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New York and Texas just to perform.
One of the guests was Juliette Streeter, 14, of Akron, a student at the Miller South School for the Visual and Performing Arts.
She was excited to be chosen to participate.
“It’s not what I’m used to,” Streeter said. “It’s very fun getting used to all the different people and different styles and the ways they play.”
Karriker, who has conducted all six of the MonsterPianos!, said the concert sets UA apart.
“It truly makes us distinctive as far as a School of Music to have this kind of event,” he said. “There’s a lot of folks who love piano music in this community and they are fascinated by seeing that many pianos on stage and hearing what it sounds like.”