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Diane Walsh, pianist: Reviews

...An usher is stationed next to the production’s Steinway during intermission to gently steer errant hands away from the instrument. Theatergoers peer at it as if they are checking under the hood of a sleek, exotic roadster.

The seven-foot piano was chosen by Diane Walsh, whose performance serves as a vital second layer of dialogue: As the audience hears the actors refer to a particular variation or theme, Walsh—positioned on an aisle-level platform at stage right—responds from the keyboard. When words and music are combined with projections of pages from Beethoven’s sketchbooks, the result is a rich sensory experience for spectators.

Walsh’s journey with 33 Variations began when a friend, pianist Peter Vinograde, tipped her off in 2004 that Tectonic was seeking someone who could play the piece; she had performed it three months earlier in concert at Mannes College of Music, where she teaches part-time.

The fifty-eight-year-old New Yorker, who energetically attacks the flights of stairs to her third-floor dressing room, is disarmingly playful and laughs heartily. Her long and busy career as a concert hall artist—worldwide bookings, recordings with such labels as Nonesuch, Koch and Sony—has been temporarily derailed by opening-night rituals and performing the same piece eight times a week.

“There’s something very warm and family-like,” she says of the theater. Her dressing-room table is cheerfully cluttered with family photos and “a sweet note” from pal Bill Irwin, who is appearing nearby in Waiting for Godot. “I think the musician routine is a lot more ‘in and out of town in three days’ and you don’t always have the leisure to get to know people very well….So there’s something very welcoming about this.”

As musical director, Walsh worked closely with Kaufman on the selection, timing and editing of the variations to enhance the stage action. With the sound designer, she experimented with how the Steinway would declare itself.

“It’s not really concert hall acoustics here because theaters are designed to be dry so words are clear,” she explains. “There is a little bit of enhancement….We tried some amplification and some added reverb and we decided it sounded better without amplification, but keeping the reverb. So I’m in the sound system, but it’s very, very subtle and most people think that I’m not being enhanced. It’s just a little more resonant and warm.”

Classical artists such as Robert McDonald and Eugene Drucker and his wife, Roberta Cooper, have seen the show, and pianist Emanuel Ax said her Steinway sounded “wonderful” in the room. “I said thank you and left it at that,” Walsh recalls, smiling broadly.

Walsh shares the show-stopping “Fugue” scene with Grenier, who “composes” Variation No. 32 aloud to her accompaniment. As he muses about changes in key and tempo during the creative process, Walsh plays in tandem with his words.

“The tricky thing about it for him,” says Walsh admiringly, “is that he has to anticipate what I’m about to do. So he can’t just respond to something; he’s got to, in effect, call it into existence. Then you hear it in the music. So he has to know what’s happening in the music right before the thing he’s about to describe. Once I start going, I can’t really wait for him….It’s such a headlong piece.”

It was never the intention to use live music as wallpaper, Kaufman says, and marrying score to text was “a very organic process. I tried to use it as a way to continue with the narrative…a way to keep furthering the story.”

Walsh, who has released Beethoven: 33 Variations on Jonathan Digital Recordings, says this work has “tickled” her imagination. “It’s like Beethoven is playing this cosmic joke on us. Like he’s saying, ‘You want a set of variations? I’ll show you a set of variations!’” she exclaims, sweeping her arms in exaggeration. “And it has such a range of emotions, and the juxtapositions are so sharp sometimes. He goes from being incredibly boisterous and noisy to being very tender and gentle, to being tragic, to being rude again. . . . But it also makes me feel close to his personality, my own fantasy of what Beethoven was like as a person.”

The Diabelli Variations are many things to many listeners. When pressed to pick the variation that touches them personally, Walsh and Kaufman unhesitatingly choose the Fughetta, No. 24. “There’s something so unearthly beautiful about it,” enthuses Walsh. “It reminds me of Bach, so it’s very pure, but the sadness is kind of contained. It’s a perfect little miracle.”

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