Grand Band Strikes LPR Again (A Review)

Grand Band soundchecking before the concert (Photo courtesy of Vicky Chow)grandbandsoundcheck

Grand Band @ LPR
Featuring Lisa Moore, Isabelle O’Connell, Vicky Chow, Blair McMillen, David Friend, and Paul Kerekes, pianos
Le Poisson Rouge, NYC
Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

Written by Tristan McKay

Grand Band, New York City’s new music keyboard sextet, returned to Le Poisson Rouge this week to perform Simeon ten Holt’s magnum opus, Canto Ostinato. This evening marked their third appearance as a group—the first being at the Bang on a Can Marathon at the Winter Garden last June, followed by a concert at LPR of works by Julia Wolfe, Philip Glass, Kate Moore and Steve Reich in August. The sizzling, feisty and dazzling energy of Grand Band’s first two performances was this time substituted with a different brand of virtuosity: Canto Ostinato is a mystical, enchanting, and meditative epic, brilliantly and vividly animated by six of the most active and celebrated contemporary pianists around: Lisa Moore, Isabelle “Izzy” O’Connell, Vicky Chow, Blair McMillen, David Friend, and Paul Kerekes.

Canto Ostinato, composed in 1976 and first performed in 1979, is the most famous and frequently performed piece by Dutch composer Simeon ten Holt, who passed away last November. Despite this claim, I have never seen any of his music programmed in the city, and neither had anyone that I told about the concert. Grand Band dually honored the composer’s passing and did a service to the audience in bringing this work back to our collective attention.

Canto Ostinato can be performed with variable instrumentation and number of performers. The debut performance was done with three pianos and one electric organ, but it is commonly played with two to four pianos. Grand Band’s six-keyboard arrangement is markedly unique, and nicely fleshed out the piece. The score is made up of over a hundred cells (think Terry Riley’s ‘In C’, but with the players changing cells together), which can be repeated as many times as the group desires (some bridging cells aside). This openness gives space for performances that can range from moderately short settings to day-long marathons. Grand Band’s performance clocked in at just less than ninety minutes, which was substantial and satisfying without being heavy-handed or drawn-out.

With a constant meter of 10/16 (or 2/4, as the groups of 5 tend to melt into a gently undulating macro pulse), Canto Ostinato has an inherent and unique tenderness and grace that is less common in the hard-edged and square meters typical of other minimalist pieces. The tonality is overwhelmingly major, though some spicy dissonances weave their way into the textures, and a recurring lyrical, modal melody makes periodic appearances, solidifying and growing into a strong, unified declaration, before breaking apart and giving way once more to the ebb and flow of pulsating harmonic material. Grand Band’s decisions concerning the number of repeats taken for each cell, positioning of dynamic peaks and valleys, and density of orchestration were intelligent and effective, providing enough shape, movement and variety to sustain the work for the full ninety minutes.

Canto Ostinato was a deeply felt and unexpectedly hypnotic experience. As a kid, I grew up listening to the music of new age pianist George Winston, whose nature-inspired pieces instilled in me a sense of wonder and adoration for the mountains and forests of my native Colorado. Canto Ostinato brought me to a similar place of Zen-like bliss, giving me a much-needed mental vacation from the noise and stresses of living in New York.

Situated in the center of the venue with keyboards arranged in a hexagon, Grand Band projected a sense of solidarity and balance much in line with what Canto Ostinato had to offer. I very much look forward to seeing what Grand Band will offer next, what other stories and experiences will emerge from within the ring of these versatile storytellers.


Tristan McKay, who primarily is a pianist/multimedia composer, is also a graphic designer (Check out his work on various posters), and does a great job with freelance writing! His website is Tristan


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