Chilly Gonzales with the BBC Symphony Orchestra

October 20th 2012, Barbican Hall, London

The piano has become an instrument of the masses again. Thanks to one man, who brought the giant in black and white to life again: Chilly Gonzales. His recipe sounds simple: modification and adaptation. Instead of putting a good portion of pop into existing classical music and brewing a cheesy, unenjoyable pomp-chowder, he uses the rules of classical composition to create piano pearls in poplength and –structure. Instead of isolating himself, he constantly redraws boundaries and pairs the piano with different contemporary and shimmering styles. Instead of playing the introverted autistic artist and hiding behind the giant or slipping into the shiny shoes of a snob, he puts on green slippers and a satin bathrobe to create the illusion of intimacy and being at eye level with the audience. He embodies a true musical genius and the adoration of the audience like no other, yet he is neither a populist nor a yes-man.

Respect and Inspiration
To him the audience is not a faceless horde thankfully allowed to witness self-forgotten music-making, the audience determines his thinking, acting, playing. It may be thanks to this respect for the people in large parts, who in turn also respect and adore him, who get inspiration from his persona and oeuvre, that he can be sure of their loyalty, no matter which direction the next projects takes. Therefore, you find a colourful group of people forming the audience, companions and fans from all creative phases: T-shirt sits next to sack coat and oversized wool jumper lounges next to lace Chanel suit. Who thinks the concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at London’s Barbican Hall is the roll backwards to stiff traditions, errs. In fact, Chilly Gonzales is already on his next and logically consequent mission, that started one year ago with the Radiosinfonieorchester (RSO) in Vienna: to liberate the orchestra from mustiness and elitarism. He couldn’t have found a better ally than Jules Buckley for this task. The rising conductor is also a member of a new avant-guard that aspires to free the orchestra from a century long dictatorship. If necessary by putting sheets of today’s music on their music stands and enslaving the weak-willed apparatus.

“The world’s most expensive synthesizer”
That’s what Chilly Gonzales called the orchestra in advance. Thus, a wide smile brightens his face the second his incarnate teenage toy turns the volume up and supports his orchestral rap “Supervillain Music” – played “Habsburg style”. While he raps straight to the point over the waltzing 6/8 time, the one or other silver-haired audience member rubs his eyes that just a moment ago had been closed, some even turn into gentle toupee-bangers. What a contrast to the concert’s soft beginning, when Chilly Gonzales opened the night with three of his most earwormy pieces from the sequel “Solo Piano II” – according to the title without much tomtom: one man, one Steinway. “Kenaston”, named after the street he grew up in Montreal, meanders straight from ear to soul and allows the conclusion that his childhood must have been wonderful – including the sweet melancholy one feels when looking back as an adult. Then “Othello”, a piece that might have existed in Gonzales‘ head since 2009. It was first brought onstage during his World Record attempt in Paris (he broke the record for longest concert of an solo artist by playing more than 27 hours straight,

where he got a haircut and classical clean shave while playing a somnabulistic version of the piece on an early Sunday morning. More Saturday night on fire the Barbican version, where he turns the piano lid into a rhythm instrument – and it is a rhythm instrument artist, not a writer, the song is named after: steel drummer Othello Molineaux.

The baroque sounding “Evolving Doors” shapes the entrance for the black-dressed, venerable orchestra, while the audience takes the fake break as an invitation to make some shopping mall noise. Now the fusion of tradition and modern times becomes visible, the sheer jeopardy tangible at the same time. Who would have guessed that at the end of the night the elderly timpani man metamorphoses into The Muppets’ “Animal” and hits his instrument so hard, even stage beast Chilly Gonzales feels urged to tame him. Or that the brass spends one song just waving to the beat, while the Maestro stagedives the hall.

Audience Participation
Before that and after “Supervillain Music” and his revenge-rap “The Grudge”, the probably youngest audience member, Jeevan, steals the show from the pro by unintimidatedly improvising on the black and white keys with a good feeling for rhythm. Maybe thanks to charming Jeevan Gonzales presents a “child-friendly” (or BBC-friendly?) version of “The Grudge”. The little girl’s music lesson starts with a self-ironic skit about his three-note-song “Never Stop” which was used in the first iPad ad and introduced the famous device to the world. As it is iGod Steve Jobs-approved, he jokes, it’s not his right to judge – although the song was made in a misanthrope mood. Sequences like this or when he explains his favourite key minor by transposing famous pieces from major to minor and wrapping a political theory around it, are not new. However, his sense of humour and charm make his music theoretical excursus much more enjoyable and entertaining than music lessons in school ever were.

Piano Concerto No. 1
As brilliant as the show has been until here – it was more like a prelude. A prelude to the world premiere of Chilly Gonzales’ Piano Concerto No. 1, a composition in four movements and also another concert hall revolution. So far, the only sign of a human’s presence between the movements has been coughing, or in case of a boring presentation, mumbling. Now, the composer himself encourages the listener to applaud and show sentiments as soon as the music falls quiet. And they come out powerfully. Who has always been wondering what the maximum level of music induced emotions feels like, got the answer this very evening: epochal, bombastic, dramatic – that is the sound of the impressive piece that sometimes reminds of the soundtrack to an A-rated movie. Passages, where the piano takes the lead or the orchestra takes over alternate with sequences , where the keys flirt with different instruments. Interplay –and action testify the great harmony between all participants. Carried by variations of a touching melody, the Concerto never turns kitschy. The result is a permanent goose bump, a whole-body Mohican – unless you were dead or forgot to switch on the hearing aid device.

The latter is a helpful tool for the Ostinato, following the Concerto, a singalong well-known and –loved by his fans, which makes the whole hall sing until it vibrates by virtue of harmony. A nice contrast to the orgasmic highlight of the night, when the nutty professor takes possession of the so far mannered man. First, he loudly demands “Take me to Broadway” with full orchestra blast and transports an inkling again of what a collective peak performance the melding of a solo performer and an orchestra must be like. Gonzales starts the song with spitting the first lines and refrain, then lets the orchestra play for him, just to take over for a minutes lasting solo that Jules Buckley seems to vainly look for in the score. Only after Gonzales trilled in the higher keys and slapped the instrument with the whole hand, Buckley makes the orchestra join in the refrain at the perfect second.

Finally, Chilly Gonzales uses his expensive and large synthesizer to mix samples of “Another One Bites the Dust”, the “Knight Rider”-theme (“Canadian kids are raised by television“) and “Thriller”, pours in a dash of “Toxic” Britney Spears, lets the brass wave the rhythm and, as afore mentioned, propels timpani old-timer into ecstasy. As if that is not enough, he runs up the circus three times while rapping “You Snooze, You Lose” to literally be carried away by the slightly heavy-handed audience. After the last chords silence, the Barbican unisono jumps to its feet and showers the stage with .everything an audience has to give. “Bravo!”, stomping and screaming accompany the musicians off stage. Three solo encores, one of them as “headless” pianist –and an unforgettable concert experience, if not one of the highlights in Chilly Gonzales’ career, has already become a legend. And a restart at the same time. Mission accomplished – at least for this one night. Still, many more concert halls in this world urgently need him to do some dusting.

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