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See fingers fly with Keyboard in the Sky

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

After Jonathan Biss makes his Aspen debut tonight at Harris Hall, in the final concert of the Aspen Music Festival and School’s Winter Music series, the young pianist will no doubt receive hearty applause. A former student of Leon Fleisher at the Aspen Music School, the 22-year-old Biss has had recent performances with the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and was awarded the Avery Fisher Career Grant.

Still, Biss’ performance of works by Berg, Schumann, Leon Kirchner and Beethoven will have to share the ovation with another Aspen debut.

Tonight’s concert will feature the Keyboard in the Sky, a visual innovation that projects an image of the keyboardist’s hands onto a screen above the stage. It marks the first time that the device will be used outside of the Scottsdale (Ariz.) Center for the Arts, where it was developed seven years ago. The Keyboard in the Sky will project a single-camera image, measuring approximately 11 1/2 feet wide by 15 to 18 inches high, onto a framed screen at the back of the Harris Hall stage.

The Keyboard in the Sky was developed in 1997 by Ric Alling, vice president of operations for the Scottsdale Cultural Council, in response to a common, but odd, problem. When the Scottsdale Center for the Arts ” a part of the Scottsdale Cultural Center ” presented solo piano concerts, the entire 830-seat venue would skew to the left, the better to view the pianist’s hands. The right-hand side of the venue could be near empty, while audience members scrambled for prime, left-side seats.

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“There’s always this jostling effect, where everybody wanted to sit on the left side of the audience,” said Alling yesterday, taking a break from doing his first installation of the Keyboard in the Sky outside its home hall. “We have these concert series, and when anybody drops it or dies, there’s this push to move to the left side. Because everybody wants to see the keyboardist’s hands.”

Alling knew how well opera audiences had taken to surtitles and modeled his invention after that revolutionary innovation. He developed a single-camera system to focus on nothing other than the pianist’s hands on the keyboard. The screen is placed just above and behind the piano, so that the eyes remain directed on the musician. Alling said his invention is unintrusive enough that it is doesn’t distract the performer, and is easily ignored by those who prefer to watch the pianist.

The Keyboard in the Sky was not instantly embraced by all. “Early on, a couple of artists refused to do it,” said Alling. “Sometimes it was a matter of trying to explain it to the artist or agent, and they said, ‘I don’t get it.'”

Alling is now fairly amazed at how completely audiences and artists alike get the device. Some 80 concerts at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts have employed the technology; among the pianists who have performed under the Keyboard in the Sky are Yefim Bronfman, Emmanuel Ax, Andre Watts and Lang-Lang. Though the device was intended for solo piano concerts, it was used for a dual piano concert with Bronfman and Ax, and worked well, according to Alling.

Alling says that no musician has refused to use the Keyboard in the Sky for several years. Attendance for solo piano concerts is up in Scottsdale. “Now our audience really expects it to be there,” he said. “I don’t like telling the audience it’s not going to be there. They boo.”

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Considering the smooth acceptance of the Keyboard in the Sky in Scottsdale, the spread of the technology has been slow. Alling said this is partly due to expense ” because each concert hall is different, each Keyboard in the Sky has to be custom-made to fit the size and contours. And the device is not a full-time job for Alling, so his time to promote his invention is limited.

Enter Richard Felder. The 57-year-old attorney and businessman is a member of the board of directors for both the Aspen Music Festival and the Scottsdale Cultural Council. Felder and his wife, Deborah, a classical music fanatic, had seen how the Keyboard in the Sky enhanced the concert experience in Scottsdale. Two years ago, Deborah told Richard about a conversation she had had with someone associated with the Scottsdale Center for the Arts: Deborah was informed that the organization had no time or money to devote to spreading the word about the technology.

“I said no way,” said Felder. “We really want this to go somewhere. Because the audience loved it and it should be elsewhere.”

Felder arranged for Jim Berdahl, the director of operations for the Aspen Music Festival, and Robert Winter, a classical music commentator and a professor with the Aspen Music Festival, to witness the innovation in Scottsdale. The two were sold, and the Felders arranged to sponsor a performance.

Tonight’s concert was selected because it coincides with a meeting of the Aspen Music Festival board, and much of the board will be in attendance at Biss’ performance. Felder figures that giving the well-connected Music Festival board a taste of the Keyboard in the Sky is the best way to get the word out. He is also in discussions to have the technology used at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

“People always have the reaction: ‘Why haven’t I seen this anywhere else?'” he said. “Hopefully, they will.”

[Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com]


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