How to play a painting on the piano

By Fredric Dannen

Ken Bichel

In 1874, the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky went to an exhibition of watercolors by his friend Viktor Hartman, who had died the year before of an aneurysm. The paintings were all representational: the catacombs, the great gate at Kiev, ballet dancers caparisoned as chickens. More than half the paintings are lost, and all would have been long forgotten, had Mussorgsky not written a suite for piano, Pictures at an Exhibition, his rather literal musical impressions of Hartman’s rather literal paintings. Later orchestrated by Maurice Ravel, Pictures at an Exhibition is a mainstream favorite by a composer who, in his lifetime, was branded a radical.

Ken Bichel: Transformations
Thu, Jul 10, 7pm
Auditorio Miguel Malo
Bellas Artes
Hernandez Macias 75
250 pesos

Radical or not, one can only wonder what Mussorgsky would make of the prodigiously talented San Miguel pianist and composer Ken Bichel. On July 10, at the newly renovated concert hall on the second floor of the Bellas Artes, Bichel will give his first solo piano concert in nearly three years, and in the second half he will do something he has done only a few times before, and always to the astonishment of his audience. Three works of abstract art – painting or sculpture – will be placed on the stage, covered. Neither Bichel nor the concertgoers will have seen those works before. Each time one of the artworks is unveiled, Bichel, within moments, will begin playing the artwork on the piano, as if reading from a sheet of music.

It is no parlor trick, as previous audiences who have seen Bichel carry it off can attest, but a genuine act of synesthesia, or mixing of the senses, a phenomenon well documented but impossible to explain. Literally, synesthesia means to perceive (esthesia) together (syn). In the field of music, one of the most common examples of the phenomenon can be found in people who see specific colors when they hear certain notes or keys, and are thereby blessed (or cursed) with absolute pitch. In the most extreme cases, synesthetes are suffering from a neurological disorder – their senses are inextricably entangled in a kind of mad crosstalk.

Bichel, for his part, is able to draw on his bisensory abilities at will. “It’s something intuitive,” he says, “an energetic downlink, an emotional hit when I see the artwork.” He adds, “I wait for that hit, and if there’s a time lag, it’s not me thinking, ‘That would be good in the key of B-flat.’ It’s not a thinking process.”

Needless to say, Bichel also draws on his considerable training in music. A native of Detroit, Bichel earned a master’s in piano performance at the Juilliard School, and went on to build a formidable musical career – highlights include a stint as musical director for Judy Collins, performances with artists such as Billy Joel, Aretha Franklin, and Peggy Lee, and a role in the hit Broadway musical I Love My Wife, for which he won a Drama Desk Award.

Proceeds of Bichel’s forthcoming concert, “Transformations,” will benefit the Rural Education Institute of Mexico, an organization dedicated to improving educational opportunities for under-resourced Mexican children in rural communities. In addition to his improvisations, Bichel will perform his own virtuoso piano transcriptions of popular songs (from bossa nova to Beatles), and several original compositions, including his dazzling solo “White Water,” a work commissioned for the 2011 Cervantino Festival.

Bichel is not entirely certain how he discovered his synesthetic ability to play works of art on the keyboard, but he believes it originated at a recording session with his musical Doppelganger, the pianist Marianna Rosett. Bichel and Rosett first teamed up in the 1990s, and toured the world as a piano duo. They played nothing but spontaneous, improvised music, and their much-coveted CD (called Mannekrianna), is a testament to their extraordinary unity. “We must have recorded close to a hundred pieces of music for that CD,” Bichel recalls. At the end of one session, he adds, “we were in a tired, blissful state,” and for some reason Bichel gestured to a red couch in the studio and said, “Let’s play that.” Sure enough, he says, “We played the red couch.”

Tickets for the July 10 concert are on sale at La Conexion, calle Aldama 3; Solutions, calle Mesones 57 and Restauant Los Milagros, calle Relox 17.


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