Gather ’round the piano, L.A.

March 30, 2012 


The pianos are coming—and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra hopes Southern California is ready to play.

In an initiative that will involve artists, community groups and businesses from throughout the region, 30 upright pianos will be dispatched to street corners, public parks and assorted outdoor locations throughout Greater Los Angeles this month just to see what transpires around them.

They’ll be free, available 24-7, tuned by professionals, decorated by some of L.A.’s most talented artists and equipped with plastic covers in case of bad weather. All the public will have to do will be to follow the instructions that will be written on each one:

Play Me, I’m Yours,” the inscription will say.

“I’d read about this in London and New York, and thought it was a spectacular idea,” says LACO Executive Director Rachel Fine, who began laying the groundwork for the initiative even before she officially started her job at the orchestra in late 2010.

The pianos will be placed across the Southland, from North Hollywood’s El Portal Theatre to the Watts/Willowbrook Boys & Girls Club, from Atlantic Times Square in Monterey Park to Union Station and the Santa Monica Pier.

The endeavor, which will run from April 12 until May 3, is part of a worldwide public art project launched in 2008 in Birmingham, England, by British artist Luke Jerram. Placing temporary pianos outdoors where people can stumble upon them and, perhaps, make music, the “Play Me, I’m Yours” street piano project has so far set up more than 500 pianos in 22 cities.

"Play Me" in Austin, Texas. Photo/Matthew Johnson Studios

Though “Play Me” has generated random acts of community and music from Sao Paulo to Sydney, it has been little known in this country, Fine noted. So far, the only American cities in which the project has appeared are Austin, Cincinnati, Grand Rapids and New York. This year’s schedule includes Salem, Ore., and Salt Lake City, in addition to L.A.

Fine called the project “a major undertaking,” but said she and the orchestra’s board members felt early on that it would be a perfect way for the orchestra to celebrate Music Director Jeffrey Kahane’s 15th anniversary with LACO and to reach out across L.A.’s metropolitan sprawl. Kahane, she noted, is a renowned pianist, and one of the orchestra’s priorities has been to remind Angelenos that it’s there as a community resource.

In fact, the organizers were still reaching out on Twitter this week for the last couple of uprights, although by the end of the day Friday, pianos had been secured for all 30 locations, thanks to donations facilitated by the Hollywood Piano Company.

Fine said that wherever “Play Me, I’m Yours” has gone, it has generated thousands of impromptu concerts, YouTube videos, dance parties, sing-alongs and jam sessions. Some artists have made it a point to play every piano.

And, she noted, the pianos themselves might be seen as “blank canvases”, which is why more than a dozen well-known Southern California artists, including muralist Kent Twitchell and painter Frank Romero, have been commissioned to decorate them, as will community groups such as the Braille Institute, the HeArt Project and Homeboy Industries.

“I’ve seen some of the painted pianos already,” says Fine, “and they’re exquisite.”

Backers include corporate citizens such as the Wells Fargo Foundation and community partners such the Los Angeles City Department of Cultural Affairs, Fine says.

The event will kick off precisely at noon on Thursday, April 12, with a free, countywide, performance of Bach’s “Prelude No. 1 in C Major” from the “Well-Tempered Clavier,” played simultaneously on all the pianos by Kahane and 29 other accomplished pianists and music students from around L.A.

After that, each musician will play one more Bach prelude and a selection of pieces of their own choosing. And then, for the next three weeks, it will be first-come, first-served for anyone else who wants to tickle the ivories.

“This is by far the most ambitious presentation of the installation to date,” the artist, Jerram, said in a statement. “I hope the public enjoys the project and takes advantage of the opportunity to perform, express themselves and go out and play.”

For the piano nearest you, go to streetpianosLA.com or click here. And for even more video highlights of “Play Me, I’m Yours” in other cities, click here.

An L.A. piano in waiting, designed by LACO staff member Caroline Shuhart and painted by LACO children and staffers. Photo/Lacey Huszcza

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