The Grand Piano Extravaganza at Oberlin

Most people in the world will never have the opportunity to experience the Grand Piano Extravaganza at Oberlin. The best they will be able to do instead is read this description of this year’s event which has occurred Memorial Day weekend for the last 24 years at the Warner Concert Hall at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Oberlin, Ohio.

This year’s Extravaganza occurred on Friday, May 27, during commencement and alumni reunion weekend at Oberlin College, of which the Conservatory of Music is an essential and inseparable part. It is a fundraiser for the piano department at the Conservatory, and features the piano faculty and their super-talented students playing pieces for the sheer fun of it, and to show off some of the Conservatory’s collection of more than 200 perfectly maintained Steinway pianos.

The evening opened with Professor Peter Takacs playing a medley of Gershwin tunes, initially and mostly with just one hand, but producing from his piano a rich sound as if several pianos were being played together. It was simply amazing.

That was followed by the performance of a work by the German composer Wollenhaupt written for six hands on one piano. The three student performers sat together on a bench and coordinated their body movement as they poured their emotions into the performance, tossing each piece of sheet music into the air with a flourish as it was finished. The stage was littered with sheet music when the performers received their thunderous applause.

Then a second Steinway piano was added to the stage, and the piano faculty performed a stirring duet by the French composer Milhaud, and a medley of American folk tunes for eight hands on two pianos arranged by Ingolf Dahl.

Then six more Steinway grands were rolled onto the stage, and the first half of the program closed with an arrangement for eight pianos of Mambo from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story.

Between performances, Conservatory Dean David H. Stull, took the stage as master of ceremonies and offered prizes to volunteers from the audience who could answer trivia questions about the Conservatory. In doing so, he provided interesting information on the number of Steinway pianos at Oberlin, where they are manufactured, how much they weigh, and how much the casters alone cost (in case anyone present wanted to make a donation for casters).

Because Oberlin has so many Steinway pianos in such heavy use, it boasts a maintenance and restoration team of such renown that Steinway sends its own piano technicians to Oberlin to be trained by the Oberlin technicians.

The second half of the Extravaganza began with a Chopin etude arranged for revolving pianists on three pianos. The six performing students switched positions on the three pianos throughout the performance to the great amusement of the audience.

Then three more pianos were added, and the faculty performed pieces by Scott Joplin arranged for six pianos.

Two more pianos were then added, with two pianists seated at each of the eight pianos. The last pianist entered separately like a concert master, and ostentatiously hit a single note, after which the eight pianos produced the sound of an orchestra tuning its instruments. They then performed an overture by Rossini arranged for 160 fingers.

The grand finale of the Extravaganza was The Stars and Stripes Forever performed on eight pianos, with a student joining in on the best solo ever written for the piccolo, and with Dean Stull joining in with his tuba.

It was another triumph for the Oberlin Conservatory, something that can only be imagined happening at Oberlin and nowhere else. What do you think a ticket for a performance like this in San Francisco or New York would cost? At Oberlin it was a $20 donation to the piano department.

One of the best memories for Oberlin alumni is having been among gifted musicians who had fun with music, whether performing in their own groups outside the Conservatory, or in the Caribbean steel can band, or the Taiko Japanese drum group, or playing arrangements for woodwind recorders. The Extravaganza was a reminder to returning alumni like me what a unique place Oberlin College is in the world, and how privileged we all were to spend time here.

If you’re ever going to be in Oberlin for commencement weekend, do not miss the Grand Piano Extravaganza.

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