'Piano Project' coming to the downtown

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BENNINGTON — Downtown Bennington will pause on Saturday for a musical celebration of two big birthdays in the arts community.

At 10:30 a.m., traffic at the Four Corners intersection will stop for the world premiere performance of "The Bennington Stomp" by four pianists and a group of singers and dancers. The event is part of the Piano Project, organized by the Summer Sonatina International Piano Camp, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and the Vermont Arts Exchange, which is celebrating its 25th.

The four pianos, each decorated by a different artist, will be moved into the roadway, while the singers and dancers will take their places on the piano keys of the Piano Key Compass painted in the center of the intersection. The performance, which will be amplified, is expected to last around seven minutes.

After the performance, the four pianos will be delivered to four local businesses, where they will be available to be played by anyone, at any time.

"This year, being our 50th, we wanted to do something very special," said Polly van der Linde, director of Sonata, Intermezzo, and Summer Sonatina International Piano Camps. "Many towns do piano parades with painted pianos. I wanted to do something a little more unique so I thought — let's commission a piano piece and find local artists to paint them and then give the pianos to various downtown businesses so they can be enjoyed for years to come."

Van der Linde teamed up with Matthew Perry, co-founder and executive director of the VAE, to find local artists interested in helping with the project. He matched up artists Kim Wassick, Rhonda Ratray, Mary Jane Sarvis and Greg Winterhalter with the four donated pianos.

"Partnerships are the cornerstones of our work and we are happy to form a new one with Sonatina in the year we both celebrate milestones," Perry said. "The project is a win-win because we are not only saving old pianos and breathing new life into them, but we are commissioning artists to paint and compose music on them and bringing them to the public to enjoy, whether playing or listening."

"I've seen a preview of the pianos, and they are gorgeous," van der Linde said.

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"The Bennington Stomp" was commissioned by van der Linde. Its composer is Joel Martin, a Sonatina faculty member.

Because the pianos "are being repurposed, meaning they are not pianos that you'd see on a concert stage," she said, "the music style needed to showcase their strengths. I knew Joel could write something along the lines of ragtime and/or honky-tonk style, as well as capturing the spirit of Summer Sonatina with the lyrics and energy of the music allowing the students to have some fun with it. There will be guessing games of classical quotes in the piece as well as some audience participation."

When van der Linde asked him to write a piece for four pianos, "I immediately had this grand vision of something really virtuosic, until she told me they would be upright pianos that might be a little out of tune," Martin said. "I went back to the drawing board and came with a 'honky-tonk' setting, using snippets of well-known classical solo piano compositions. Then I thought it would be nice to have the chorus involved, so I wrote some cool lyrics and gave it a Broadway feel. In a week, all of this became "The Bennington Stomp!"

Chosen to play the piece are Martin, George Lopez, Tim Jones and Avi Randall, all affiliated with Summer Sonatina.

The Piano Key Compass will serve as the stage for the performance. The brainchild of van der Linde, the artwork features a compass rose surrounded by piano keys. It was originally painted at the intersection in the spring of 2017, and repainted this spring after last year's repaving of the highways. "This is all because of the kids at piano camp and their enthusiasm and joy for music, the arts, the piano specifically and loving our downtown, for which they visit every Friday as a special activity," she said.

The Piano Project is supported by the Billy Rose Foundation, Bennington Area Arts Council and Summer Sonatina, with grants and private donations paying the artists and the composer.

After the premiere of "The Bennington Stomp," the pianos will be delivered to Sonatina, the Gamer's Grotto, Bringing You Vermont and Elm Street Market.

"Doing things together in this community builds strength, hope, excitement, and unity," van der Linde said. "Music and art is a natural fit."

David LaChance can be reached at dlachance@benningtonbanner.com, or 447-7567, ext. 115.


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