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classical music

‘Play Me, I’m Yours’: Tuning up Boston streets

The Boston Globe

Sculptor and architect Bill Turville, of Arlington, sketches airplane accents for his piano.

There will be one by the State House, one in Chinatown Park. One at the Franklin Park Zoo, and one in South Station. There will be one at the Paul Revere Mall, and one outside Ben & Jerry’s on Newbury Street. There may even be one at Logan Airport.

They had been quietly gathering dust in living room corners, or stoically displaying family photos. Now, whether you’re a fleet-fingered virtuoso or a 6-year-old master of “Chopsticks,’’ they will be yours to play.

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“Play Me, I’m Yours” — a public art project that has placed pianos on the streets of 35 cities across the world — is making its way to Boston this fall, running from Sept. 27 to Oct. 14. It arrives courtesy of Celebrity Series of Boston, which will be celebrating its 75th anniversary with help from a total of 75 pianos. Soon parks, sidewalks, and other public spaces across Boston and Cambridge will be doubling as impromptu concert halls, each furnished with a single piano decorated by local artists.

“It’s a way of saying thank you to Boston,” said Gary Dunning, executive director of the Celebrity Series. “We are taking the music out of the concert halls, the sacred spaces, if you want to call them that. So that, without being too clichéd about it, everyone can be an artist.”

The idea for a festival of street pianos originated with the British artist Luke Jerram, who has a knack for staging whimsical public encounters with music. Back in 2007, he was working on a project called the Sky Orchestra, which involved launching orchestral musicians in hot-air balloons to perform above the city of Birmingham. But after an ill-timed windy day grounded Jerram’s symphony of the air, he was forced to think up other ways of delivering unscripted urban interactions with music. He was inspired by his many hours spent in, of all places, a local laundromat.

“Every weekend,” Jerram explained in a recent phone interview, “I had seen the same people washing their clothes, and yet no one seemed to talk with one another. I realized that within a city there must be all of these invisible communities of people who recognize each other but would never interact. Maybe a piano, I thought, could be a catalyst for connecting people and activating the urban landscape.”

“Play Me, I’m Yours” debuted in Birmingham in 2008, and since then, interest in the project has been constant, with a total of around 1,000 pianos placed. At the time of each installation, a city’s freshly donated instruments are decorated to make them more approachable.

Not surprisingly, the project has elicited wildly varied reactions, depending on where it’s been staged. “In London, people would often film themselves playing the piano, quite shyly sometimes,” Jerram recalled. “In New York, people would turn up with film crews, and the crowd would dress like pop stars.”

“In Austin, Texas,” he continued, “when we asked the public to decorate the pianos, people came out with streamers and stickers, and there was a huge amount of creativity. We did the same thing in Geneva, and there was no spontaneous creativity in that respect. People just turned up with classical music in briefcases, and wanted to play their classical tunes. In Sao Paolo, lots of people had never seen a piano, so it was a different thing entirely.”

The Boston Globe

Artist Magdalena Taber takes measurements for her piano.

How exactly Bostonians will respond is anyone’s guess. Each piano, locally donated and tuned up by a team of technicians, will have a host organization that tends to it, and will in many cases receive the piano afterward. Many spots are still being finalized. A few others proved too ambitious. “We liked the idea of a piano on one Boston harbor ferry as it goes around,” said Dunning, “but lifting it up onto the gangplank wasn’t too appealing.”

Once the project is up and running, Celebrity Series will be encouraging local choruses to rehearse in the open air, and Dunning hopes a few well-known Bostonians such as the Museum of Fine Arts’ Malcolm Rogers or the Boston Pops’ Keith Lockhart may be coaxed to a keyboard.

But one attraction of the project is the potential it opens for musical serendipity. In other cities, prodigies have stopped traffic with unannounced recitals, strangers have stumbled upon a wedding with sidewalk musical accompaniment, and at least one unemployed musician has earned attention that led to a record deal. Last year, in a proudly low-tech experiment in urban surround sound, a group of 30 pianists cheerfully took to the streets of Los Angeles to perform a precisely coordinated rendition of the famous C major Prelude from Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier.”

“It’s a very powerful concept,” says Jerram, “because it’s not about any one person’s ideas. The pianos are there for everyone. They become a blank canvas for the public’s creativity.”

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com
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