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LACO's 'Play Me' Pianos Play On

Somewhere in Los Angeles, there is a "Play Me, I'm Yours" piano being plunked at this post time. The public art performance project is engaging the city as planned by Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, who adapted Luke Jerram's 2008 public art experiment to celebrate conductor (and pianist) Jeffrey Kahane's 15th anniversary as LACO music director.

It is a major undertaking for LACO staff to take on community-engagement project of this magnitude, said LACO Executive Director Rachel Fine. Yet, one already hopes it's done again sometime. "We certainly want to maintain our momentum and our connection to the broader L.A. community," she said. "So I'm certain we will unveil some kind of innovative encore in the near future."

As for the artists who took part in the project, the design concepts are also playing out well.

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Pianos by ManOne and Stuart Vaughn at LACO offices waiting to be delivered I Courtesy of LACO
Stuart Vaughan knew his Canoga Park Youth Center entry, hosted by Plaza del Valle, would land in the West Valley. His design is cued by the local Dia de los Muertos festival that he has coordinated for over a decade. "As an artist and educator, I have been fascinated with Dia de los Muertos," said Vaughan, who has traveled to Mexico to experience the holiday. "The painting on the piano is inspired by indigenous art from Guerrero, Mexico, which is the Sister City of Canoga Park."

Like many artists, he likes to paint with all forms of music playing in his studio, and his "great interest" in Latin music had him playing Mexican-composer Augustine Lara in the background during the process, he said, "especially . . . the song "Solamente una Vez."

Explore the "Play Me, I'm Yours" website and you will find how other artists have bonded with their pianos. "She's a lady," wrote Ray McCray about his instrument hosted by the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center. "I just have to listen to her to know how she wants to dress." Artists Peizhi and Qian Yu use a calligraphy scroll to connect Monterey Park to music, as hosted by Atlantic Times Square. Silver Lake artist Danny Heller's design at Los Angeles City Hall showcases historic downtown landmarks.

New Roads School, hosted by VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, had their project overseen by Marcia More. Their piece, through collage, can be interpreted as an x-ray of a piano interior. It sits at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in West Los Angeles.

At Claremont's Rhino Records, composer Timothy Andres sent a "conceptual piece" titled "How to play Beethoven's 'Waldstein' Sonata'," consisting of phrases like "Start Again. That first note was weak."

"The piano is covered with a litany of instructional comments suggestive of a particularly sadistic piano teacher," Andres wrote on his website. "Most of the pianos I saw in New York were done up in a more feel-good manner . . . so I thought it would be funny to contribute something slightly off-putting, almost daring you to play."

Piano players are taking Andres' dare, including kids and families coming in to visit the Inland-based upright. The tip-off that they are just as familiar with Bach as they are with rock have been the music selections. "Lots of people play classical stuff," said Val Gettler while working the Rhino Records counter over the weekend. She said the piano is in constant use. "And also we hear a lot of Coldplay."

At the Pasadena Conservatory of Music, the piano was designed by Man One and a group of young curators. "I worked on it with my workshop kids. It was part of the residency with the HeArtproject," said the graffiti artist and muralist. "There is a mariachi-like character on one side. One of the kids did it to show his Mexican heritage."

"We tried to keep it mostly abstract and about color. So that no matter who is playing the piano or what type of music the piano would make sense." Man One adds.

Detail of Frank Romeo's piano, now at Olvera Street I Photo courtesy of LACO Chicano Artist and muralist Frank Romero wasn't sure where his piano would end up, but approached it as a sculpture. "But it was a daunting proposal," he says. "What do you do with a piano?"

"So I did something I always wanted to do artistically. I painted it with bright kindergarten colors. I layered colors and scratched thru them with a rubber brush. The line comes out black on top of the color," said Romeo. "I kept drawing and painting and drawing and painting. My mother, when she was alive, called the technique 'scrafitto.' While I was painting, I was in mortal fear that the legs of the piano would fall off."

It ended up that the piano's location could not have been better for the Los Angeles native. "The fact that my piano went to Olvera Street, unbeknownst to me, is very sweet," he said. "That's where my grandparents took me to church every Sunday."

Old Blue Eyes by Evan Skrederstu I Photo courtesy of LACOSometimes the piano is the story. Street artist Evan Skrederstu handled a late entry, a stand-up grand piano manufactured by the Shaw Piano Company over 100 years ago. Hosted by The Wende Museum, it was scheduled to sit near the street art covered fragments of the Berlin Wall at 5900 Wilshire Blvd.

Skrederstu, who is also a scenic painter, brought the piano back to the living with eyes, a brain, and a pumping veined heart, making the keys an aged grin. Like the other artists, he saw it as a three-dimensional sculpture, but also responded to the age of the crafted wood, and the rings marks and yellow keys that he saw as a peek to the piano's previous life that must have been "in bars and saloons." "It has character," said the artist, showing some respect toward his street-wise piano. "It's seen a lot more than I have."

The final chords of 'Play Me, I'm Yours' will be played May 3rd.

"Love Letters to LA: Pianos Live" is a one night singing and playing pop-up tribute to Los Angeles on Thursday, April 26th at 8:45 p.m. The one night only concert around Hollywood's the piano at the Egyptian Theatre to mark the final week of the piano as public art project.


Above photo: Playing El Pueblo I Photo courtesy of LACO

About the Author

Ed Fuentes is an arts journalist, photographer, graphic designer, and digital muralist who covers a variety of topics and geographies in Southern California for KCET.
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