Monday, October 17, 2011

Pianos to be placed around downtown

By Keith Lawrence, Messenger-Inquirer
Published: Monday, October 17, 2011 12:00 AM CDT

Imagine this scenario: You’re walking downtown and there on the sidewalk sits an upright piano.

Nobody’s around.

So, why not?

You step up cautiously, place your fingers on the keys, glance around to see if anybody’s watching and suddenly, you’re in concert mode.

That’s what city officials and the Owensboro Symphony Orchestra are hoping to see next summer.

The program doesn’t have a name yet, but the city rolled out three upright pianos that look like a Technicolor Liberace dream at last weekend’s grand opening of Riverfront Crossing.

They were sitting along the brick walks in the block between the Daviess County Courthouse and the river.

And someone was tickling the ivories on each of them during most of the six-hour celebration.

“It’s part of our walkability effort to make downtown more fun,” City Manager Bill Parrish said. “Anyone who ever took piano lessons can sit down and start banging away. Even I can get behind a piano and play ‘Chopsticks’. It fits in with downtown and the arts. Music is so important to this community.”

Bill Price, executive director of the Owensboro Symphony Orchestra, couldn’t agree more.

“This idea may grow,” he said. “If people have pianos they’d like to donate, I think it would be a great idea. I could think of a dozen places to put them.”

The idea began with the symphony.

“We got a grant from the Young Foundation to buy a baby grand and two studio pianos,” Price said. “And we were trying to decide what to do with the old ones. They were given to us, and we didn’t know what to do with them until this came along.”

Nick Palmer, the symphony’s music director and conductor, “had seen this program in other cities and we thought it was a great idea,” he said.

One of the upright pianos dates back to the early 20th century, Price said. The other two are probably from the 1940s, he said.

Sidewalk pianos are cropping up in cities around the world.

In Denver, the “Your Keys to the City” program has rolled out nearly a dozen upright pianos and placed them every few blocks along a 16-block area.

In Orange County, Calif., some two dozen painted pianos have been placed throughout the county.

Everett, Wash., put 10 pianos on its sidewalk as part of a showcase called “Street Tunes: An Invitation for the Public to Jam.”

British artist Luke Jerram has created a piano installation called “Play Me, I’m Yours,” that has traveled the world putting pianos on sidewalks in major cities.

Hastings, Mich., put four pianos on its sidewalk for a program it calls “Pianos, Pianos, Everywhere.”

Tim Ross, the city’s public events director, said the pianos were painted by Owensboro High School, Owensboro Community & Technical College and Studio Slant.

“OHS painted a downtown mural on theirs,” he said. “Studio Slant’s piano is Picasso-inspired. It’s slogan is ‘Art washes from the soul the dust of everyday life.’ ”

OCTC says its painted piano “is based on organic design rendered in bright color. The front represents the sun, the life-giving force of our planet. The top represents ‘The Big Bang’ — the creation of the universe. The back and the sides symbolize the evolution of the earth.”

“The concept is that we’ll keep them at places like the museum of science and history and they’ll be rolled outside on nice weekends,” Ross said. “People strolling by can sit down and play. We plan on having them at Smothers Park and Riverfront Crossing next year.”

The pianos, currently stored at the Public Works Department on West Fifth Street and at Studio Slant, “won’t be outside in bad weather,” he said.

“We need to figure out where to store them when they’re not outside,” Price said. “Several organizations have asked to store them. They have big rollers on them to make them easier to move. They could be set in lobbies of buildings for people to play while they’re waiting.”

“We’re supposed to get one,” Kathy Olson, executive director of the Owensboro Museum of Science and History, said last week. “We have a lot of programs for children that we can use it for. We would use it indoors and out. People visiting the museum could sit down and play while they’re here. We could use it year-round.”

“I think it’s fantastic,” said Joe Berry, project manager for downtown development. “We have such a vibrant and diverse arts community. This allows an opportunity for people to gather and enjoy a public amenity, and it associates the arts even more closely with downtown.”

Keith Lawrence, 691-7301,