Piano Plus Three makes one sweet concert

Reviewed by Lee Shepherd

Henry David Thoreau once said, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears. …”

Everyone at the Goodwill Theatre’s Schorr Family Firehouse Stage on Valentine’s Day (Feb. 14) stepped to the beat of a different drummer. In fact, they didn’t march to a drum at all, but two related percussion instruments.

The gifted performers were John Covelli, who should be dubbed the piano laureate of Binghamton, and three very flashy and accomplished marimba players: Cayenna Ponchione, Gordon Stout and Joel Smales.

For those unfamiliar with marimba, it resembles an enlarged piano keyboard on wheels, with resonating tubes hanging underneath. The marimba is played with mallets held between the fingers, chopsticks style. If you lived in Mexico or Central or South America, you could skip this paragraph. Marimbas and marimba players – often family groups – are found on every street corner. The marimba is the national instrument of Costa Rica.

With Covelli serving as MC, and tables arranged cabaret style in the Johnson City theater, the “Classical Piano Plus” concert offered a sweet Valentine’s Day menu of Busoni, Beethoven, Debussy and Chopin.

For a piano player, Covelli is a heck of a comedian. He noted that Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” would be better labeled the “Tsunami Sonata.” Proving his point, he playing up a storm, reaching hurricane force tempos in the third movement.

He quipped that, to write a really evocative piece about Spain, ask a Frenchman – then performed to perfection Debussy’s “La Soiree dans Grenade” and two other Debussy pieces, including the elegant “Clair de Lune.” He asked for forgiveness for forcing three percussionists to share one marimba: “It’s the recession, don’t you know!” And grinning all the while, he played Shostakovich’s “Polka” from the “Age of Golden” ballet – a rollicking joke in itself.

Covelli’s technical proficiency and showmanship on the piano need not be mentioned – doesn’t everyone in the Southern Tier already know what a great piano player he is? But I’ll mention it anyway. He was in top form Sunday. There WAS a bit of original Covelli mixed in with the Beethoven Sonata’s third movement, but no matter — improvising is a time-honored tradition, especially in early classical music. He tossed off a “Toccata” by Fred Werle as a built-in encore.  The Firehouse Stage might have to think about getting a new piano. With fingers flying up and down the keyboard, and with such volume and force, Covelli completely used that piano up!

As for those marimba players – Ponchione, better known in Binghamton as the conductor of the Binghamton Community Orchestra – literally strutted her stuff in her original piece, “Marimbarosa,” with the gorgeous “Concerto for Marimba” by Ney Rosauro as a chaser. With flying mallets, held by spread-eagled fingers, Ponchione elicited a rainbow of beautiful sounds from the marimba.

So – if one marimba player is good, three is better. Ponchione, Smales and Stout joined forces to play “Stubernic” by Mark Ford. Half musical work, half ballet — their perfectly synchronized mallets flew so fast they blurred, as they do-se-do-ed at the keyboard, jockeying places to arrive a split second before walloping their notes. The intricate Latin rhythms had us all dancing in our seats.

This will be a hard concert to top, but mark your calendar for the next “Classical Piano Plus” program with John Covelli and Friends. Special guests on May 9 will be Duo Patterson and cellist Hakan Hromek. Call 772-2404, ext. 1, or visit http://www.goodwilltheatre.net for tickets.

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