Piano Four Hands

Symphony No. 40, 1st mvt. W. Mozart (1756-1791) arr. Ulrich & Horn

Steffi’s Undoing W. Zeitler

Slavonic Dance Op.72 No.2      A. Dvořák (1841-1904)

If you wanted to hear a piece of orchestral literature before 1877 (when Edison invented the phonograph) you had to live in a city large enough to support an orchestra and hope they would play what you wanted to hear before you shed this mortal coil. Or you could avail yourself of an arrangement for piano four hands: two pianists at one piano. Most orchestral literature has too many notes for two hands, but four can do a surprisingly good job.

One of the stranger episodes in four hand piano land is Stravinsky’s arrangement of his _Rite of Spring_ for piano four hands. Originally for orchestra, its premier in Paris (1913) literally caused a riot, after which Stravinsky had a hard time finding orchestras willing to play it. After all, putting up chicken wire in a bar to protect the band from flying bottles is one thing, but chicken wire to protect an entire symphony orchestra is quite another. So Stravinsky toured with his four hand arrangement (himself two of the hands), which was instrumental in the piece’s long rehabilitation from public menace to Disney movie (the prehistoric dinosaur sequence in Fantasia, 1940). Seeing how we don’t have chicken wire here at San Bernardino First Presbyterian, Camden and I are playing it safe with a Mozart Symphony.

Fifteen years ago I built my glass armonica while living in Seattle. Ultimately the only way to figure out how to perform on anything is to perform a lot, so I found a hole-in-the-wall vaudeville venue called “Hokum Hall” run by “Hokum W. Jeebs” — capacity maybe 50 people. Hokum had three shows every weekend, and he was delighted to have me participate, which I did for about a year (that’s 150 performances). I was generally after Hokum’s tuba and snorkel act, and just before “Reverend Chumleigh” and his bed of nails.

Meanwhile, a local playwright wrote a musical about Franz Schubert called “Steffi’s Waltz” — one of those musicals in which the really thin plot is a veiled excuse for lots of music — in this case lots of Schubert lieder (songs). Hokum wanted me to be Schubert, I assured him I knew nothing about acting. Hokum said Schubert was an odd duck — just be myself and I’d be fine, especially since the part was short on dialog and long on piano. We were well into rehearsals when it became clear that the playwright’s intractable vision of a big-budget production wasn’t going to happen in Hokum’s low-budget hall, so the project folded. We all had a wake, and for reasons I can’t recall I wrote a piano four hands piece for the occasion.

It’s a ‘canon’ — the official musicological name for a ’round’, so like a normal round the parts that Camden and I play are the same, just starting at different times. And it’s a “spiral canon” — meaning that the part starts relatively low and goes up, so the combined effect of the two parts is like a climbing spiral.

Our guest pianist Camden Orgain earned his B.A. in Music from Stanford University and studied in Florence, Italy at the Conservatorio di Luigi Cherubini. He earned an M.A. in Piano from Virginia Commonwealth University followed by doctoral study at the University of Maryland. He lived in New York City for 15 years, working in Wall Street as a computer programmer and performing chamber music works and the occasional concerto with orchestra. He was a founding member of the Atlantis Quintet and the Cerberus Trio. He then co-founded and directed the “Great Music Series — Sundays at Five” in Provincetown, MA for four seasons, putting over 100 local and regional instrumentalists and solo singers on stage, plus choruses, in over 50 concert performances. In 2004 Camden started a new Life Trajectory with a Master’s in Nursing. He is now an RN MSN CNL living in Palm Springs.