It was nearly 30 years ago that composer Wendy Mae Chambers assembled 10 pianists on the Lincoln Center Plaza in New York for the premiere of her piece, “Ten Grand,” a multimovement work accompanied by a laser light show.
This Saturday evening, the piece gets what is most likely its Florida premiere when it is performed by a dectet of area keyboardists at Barry University in Miami Shores.
The concert is the brainchild of pianist Mia Vassilev, a Barry professor, who, in 2007, founded the Miami Piano Circle, the presenting organization for Saturday’s concert. She said she met Chambers in 2009, when the composer presented her piece “Kun,” a four-hour work for 64 toy pianos that was performed at the Vizcaya estate.
If all this sounds very John Cage-like, that’s no accident. Chamber studied with Cage and “Kun” was based on the “I Ching,” the ancient Chinese book of divination Cage used to write chance-based music.
“Ten Grand,” on the other hand, uses folk tunes from various parts of the world as material for music of massive and often busy aspect (it can be heard here on Chambers’ website) that occasionally evokes nature.
Vassilev said she liked the piece right away.
“What appealed to me was the mass quantity of sound and the layering and how you can hear not just five pianos doing one thing and five pianos doing another thing — which you often hear in transcriptions for mass-scale productions — but you can actually hear individual melodies and motifs throughout each movement,” she said. “And it’s constantly interesting. Even though parts of it are fairly repetitive and the melodies are easy to grasp, it never gets stagnant.”
The music also has pretty, meditative moments reminiscent of Olivier Messiaen, Vassilev said, amid the larger “sound splashes.”
“I don’t hear a lot of contemporary music that really, truly interests me, and think that has mass appeal as well as a neat-type structure to it,” she said. “So I was really blown away by it, and I thought this would be great to expose more people to.”
Vassilev will be one of the 10 pianists, and she was able to recruit nine others from South Florida’s piano community: Hyojin Ahn, Alan Mason, Dionisio Camacho, Kristin Camacho, Liana Pailodze, Renny Sie, Ella Xiong, Junko Kainosho and Jamila Tekalli. The 10-piano ensemble will be conducted by Georgi Danchev.
“It’s important to have good artists but also dependable artists, too,” she said. “This is a fantastic group to work with, and it’s been a lot of fun … it’s been enjoyable to put together rather than stressful, and it could easily be stressful.”
The work also calls for a light show to accompany it, which Vassilev said supplements what’s happening in the music.
“It’s not so planned out with every detail, but more of an effect with each movement,” she said, adding that the lighting design for this show will include other enhancements, such as haze. “It adds another dimension, rather than just seeing 10 (piano) lids.”
The pianists for Saturday’s concert will be grouped in a tight semi-circle, she said, with Danchev conducting. The event also provides a chance to show off Barry’s newly renovated Broad Center for the Performing Arts.
“It’s going to be a great platform for this type of event, and the size of the auditorium is pretty huge [about 950 seats],” she said. “It’s quite big, so we’re hoping for a big draw.”
Vassilev is a native of northeast Kansas who earned a bachelor’s at Kansas State University, a master’s at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music and her doctorate at the University of Miami. She’s lived in South Florida for eight years, and said she founded the Miami Piano Circle in 2007 because she was looking to fill some concert gaps in the area’s musical life and not just for regular patrons of the arts.
“Originally, it was a group of pianists, and we’d get together every month or so and play through repertoire,” she said, and plan performances. But there was more that needed to be done.
“I saw a need for programming at some charitable places as well, that didn’t get those opportunities to bring their people out. So we did some things at the veterans hospital downtown … We did a series at the Lighthouse for the Blind,” she said. “So it was also to get programming to audiences that couldn’t get out there and see these things.”
Saturday’s concert will be the largest event the Circle has yet presented. “I’d like to do some more of this type of thing, because it’s a substantial work that kind of grabs the community, like a circus,” Vassilev said. “So I’d like to get piano out there like it is in the larger artistic communities. That’s the eventual goal: To do more and more, and to do more unique projects.”
The concert is free admission, and will begin at 7 p.m. A wine-and-cheese reception before the concert is set for 5:30 p.m. Barry’s providing the refreshments, and Vassilev is grateful for that, not least because food and music bring the arts into a larger social construct.
“I went to Cincinnati for my master’s, and after every single event there was this little beer-garden place across from the conservatory, and people would go and talk and talk about (the event),” she said. “And I’ve kind of missed that down here: Talk about what you’ve seen, talk about whether you liked it or didn’t like it, just have a conversation about it … it’s part of the culture, and it should be kept.”
The Broad Center for the Performing Arts is on the campus of Barry University, 11300 N.E. Second Ave., Miami Shores. For more information, visit www.barry.edu.