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Beverly Beckham

All around Boston, the Celebrity Series’ gift of music

Cabaret artist John O’Neil plays the piano formerly owned by Jamie Riehle, and placed in Inman Square for “Play Me, I’m Yours” festival.

Beverly Beckham

Cabaret artist John O’Neil plays the piano formerly owned by Jamie Riehle, and placed in Inman Square for “Play Me, I’m Yours” festival.

Last Wednesday, there were 220 free pianos listed on pianoadoption.com. Free pianos. Who knew?

Melody Pao told me. She’s the project coordinator for the Celebrity Series of Boston’s “Play Me, I’m Yours” festival, which could also be called “75 Reasons to Leave the Burbs and Visit Boston This Week.”

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Seventy-five give-away pianos, most of them found online, have been rescued, tuned, and gussied up (the one at the Prudential Center is even lighted) and placed in public venues in Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, and Brookline, doing what they were built to do — bring people joy.

In Brookline’s Washington Square, a little boy sits and plays while his sister sings. At City Hall Plaza, a man plays church hymns. At Boston Common, it’s classical you hear.

Amateurs. Professionals. Young and old. Everywhere there’s a piano, someone is playing and a crowd gathers. All over the city, people are talking and singing and smiling.

“Play Me, I’m Yours” began in Birmingham, England, five years ago, the brainchild of British artist Luke Jerram, who believed that music would be “a catalyst for connecting people.”

Since then, 35 cities worldwide have prettied up pianos for the public to play. It’s Boston’s first time, a gift from Celebrity Series of Boston, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary. And the pianos are doing just what Jerram hoped they would: bringing people together.

Most of the old spinets and uprights and baby grands were picked up and moved by the Allston Piano Moving Co., Pao told me, then brought to 21 Dry Dock Ave. in Boston, where they were kept and restored. She didn’t say that this was a last chance for pianos that no one wanted. She didn’t say that every one of them was like Cinderella, unfit for a ball, until transformed by paint and artistry and tuners and the magic of fairy godmothers (aka volunteers) who turned them into treasures.

What about the piano in Inman Square, I asked Pao. I’d been on a piano crawl with two friends a few days before. The piano in Inman Square wasn’t the prettiest I’d seen. But it was memorable because of what the artists had painted on the outside: not anything dazzling but what a piano looks like on the inside.

That one wasn’t a throw-away, Pao said. That one is different. It belonged to someone who died.

That someone was Jamie Riehle.

Riehle was a cyclist and hockey coach. He lived in Arizona half the year and Boston half the year. He worked in product development for an Internet company. And he had a passion for classical music. He didn’t play piano, but his mother did. He bought the piano for her so that she could play when she visited him.

In the end, she visited him a lot. He had a long battle with cancer, which he lost one year ago on Oct. 6. He was 48.

“I wanted his piano to have a life after he left,” explained his friend Margo Saulnier, who is project manager for the festival. Before she worked for Celebrity Boston, she worked for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. That’s how she met Riehle. “He was so dedicated to live music.”

Saulnier sold her piano to Riehle because she was moving. When he died, it became hers again. She didn’t know, when she donated it to “Play Me, I’m Yours,” that artists would paint on the outside what a piano looks like on the inside. She never told them the history of the piano or what cancer did to her friend, how it changed how he looked, but never diminished his courage or sickened his soul.

“To the end of his life, he was still Jamie, a bright personality.”

His piano reflects this.

On Oct. 14, the clock will strike midnight and just as in a fairy tale, the magic will be gone. The pianos that have survived the outdoors will be given to charitable institutions. The others will be trashed.

The festival has been a second life for them and a bonus for us. They infused a city with song. They connected people. They made men and women and boys and girls happy. And in the notes of familiar songs played randomly, sometimes tentatively, they made us smile.

Beverly Beckham can be reached at beverlybeckham@me.com.
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