Ken Bichel: Breaking Down the Walls

By Fredric Dannen

Ken Bichel

Ken Bichel, the award-winning pianist who lives in San Miguel, bridges the barrier separating classical musicians from their counterparts in popular music and jazz. The oft-remarked-upon division between the classical and pop mainstreams is the subject of Bichel’s forthcoming solo piano concert, entitled “Breaking Down the Walls,” to be held on Thursday, February 19, at 7pm in the second-floor auditorium of the Bellas Artes. Like Bichel’s sold-out concert at the Bellas Artes last July, the event is a benefit for the Rural Education Institute of Mexico, a nonprofit organization committed to improving educational opportunities for children in the Mexican countryside.


Ken Bichel: Breaking Down the Walls
Thu, Feb 19, 7pm
Auditorio Miguel Malo
Bellas Artes
Hernández Macías 75
Tickets available at Solutions (Recreo 11); La Conexion (Aldama 3); and Los Milagros (Reloj 17)
250 pesos

Bichel has spent his 45-year career demolishing musical barriers. He received his first piano lessons at age five from his mother, and by 16 he was performing the Liszt E-flat concerto with a symphony orchestra. A classical education at a conservatory was a given, and Bichel’s early interest in jazz was, to put it mildly, not encouraged. When he came home from high school one day with a Jerry Mulligan Quartet record, he recalls, “My mother was horrified.” Upon graduation from Juilliard, Bichel went into the world of commercial music, performing with an indie rock band, accompanying marquee-name singers from Peggy Lee to Aretha Franklin, recording with Billy Joel, and playing in venues from the La Scala opera house in Milan to Carnegie Hall.

Improvisation is the heartbeat of Bichel’s musical identity, but it isn’t a talent he acquired at the conservatory. “For a classical pianist, the way to attain the top level is note perfection,” Bichel says. Improvisation requires a different mindset. “It demands more surrender,” Bichel says, “and more serenity of spirit.”

On February 19, he will collect slips of paper on which audience members have written short, suggestive phrases and he will improvise musical vignettes to suit those phrases. He will be presented on stage with large photographs and paintings and, in a display of synesthesia, play what he sees.

Bichel will also perform prepared works in keeping with his thesis that the wall separating classical and commercial music need not exist at all. He will play his self-penned “From Chopin to Jobim,” which blends a Chopin prelude with a Brazilian popular song. He will perform “Whitewater,” an impressionist work he was commissioned to write for the 2011 Cervantino Festival. In a return to his classical roots, he will play the Brahms Intermezzo, Op. 118, No. 2, in A. He will delight the audience with fantasias on popular songs, from the Beatles to Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia On My Mind.”

“Do I dare mix Brahms with the Beatles?” Bichel asks, leaving the obvious conclusion to be drawn: a resounding yes.


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