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Play It Again, Man: Public Pianos Return to City Streets, Parks

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What do the Jackson Heights Post Office in Queens, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Morningside Heights and the South Beach Boardwalk on Staten Island all have in common?

They’ve become the proud owners of pianos, as part of the second annual Pop-Up Pianos project, a two-week installation of newly refurbished and highly decorated pianos in public spots. On Friday a piano-moving team installed (and bolted down) 88 pianos across New York City including 28 grand pianos and 60 uprights, with the grand total, of course, matching the number of keys on a piano.

The return of the project, which first debuted in June 2010, comes with some notable differences, said Camille Zamora, co-founder of the nonprofit group Sing for Hope, which sponsors the event. Along with the addition of 28 grand pianos, a greater emphasis is being placed on the artists selected to decorate the pianos, which include recent art-school graduates as well as names like Isaac Mizrahi, Diane von Furstenberg and crochet artist Olek.

“Each one of these pianos is really a different artist’s vision,” she said. “We had nothing on that scale or depth last year. It’s really a testimony to the vitality and also the volunteerism of New York’s professional arts community.”

After the two-week installation closes on July 2, the pianos will be donated to local schools and community groups. The project received considerable attention last summer, and only one upright instrument, which cost $100, was vandalized.

Sing For Hope, which has budgeted $600,000 for this project, raises money to buy the used pianos from wholesalers. Since many are not in playable condition, for the past several months, a composer and technician named Fred Patella has been restoring, tuning and organizing the instruments in a Tribeca warehouse. The organization has also recruited volunteers equipped with tarps and bungee cords whose job it is to cover the pianos at the onset of inclement weather.

The Pop-Up Pianos project came to New York last year as the project of Luke Jerram, a British artist who has staged similar experiments in over 20 cities around the world including Sao Paolo, Sydney and Birmingham, England. Called “Play Me, I'm Yours,” its purpose has been to use music as a catalyst for strangers to connect with each other and make spontaneous gatherings through music. Sing for Hope partnered with Jerram for the New York edition, which is now the largest to date.

The partnership was not, evidently, an entirely harmonious one. After last year’s installation, Jerram said that he had been elbowed out by Sing for Hope, as was first reported in the New York Times. “This year they phoned me up and said they’d rather not work with me and they’re doing it themselves,” Jerram said, when reached at his London office. “I’m disappointed by the whole thing. I’ve been in dialogue with them for many months asking them to change their mind. I’ve never come across an arts organization that would do this.”

Zamora said her organization was “very unhappy and surprised” to hear of Jerram’s public statements, asserting that the split was mutual and motivated by a desire to refocus the project on its volunteer artists. She added that many pop-up piano events have been staged worldwide without Jerram's involvement, including one this summer in Denver. “Luke has been a wonderful inspiration and he continues to do fantastic street pianos, installing them around the country,” she said. “This project is very different.”

“One of the things that is very clear about this year is this leverages the volunteer power of New York’s professional artists,” she continued, noting that Jerram was paid and contracted last year. “It’s not about one individual. It’s about a community of artists who come together to create this."

Despite the parting of ways, Sing for Hope credits Jerram as an inspiration on their Web site. The site also includes a map showing the piano's locations and a form in which performers can sign up to stage their own individual concerts (otherwise, the pianos are available to play on a first-come, first-serve basis).

As with last year, the installation promises moments of serendipity that may surprise even jaded New Yorkers. On Saturday morning, the steps of Borough Hall in Brooklyn became an impromptu concert hall as a man sat down at a still partially-covered piano. Within moments, people began to turn their heads as he thumped through the power chords of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin.’”

Stop by the Bryant Park piano on Tuesday, June 21 between 12 and 1 pm as WQXR presents its own pop-up concert. In the meantime, watch highlights from last year's pop-up pianos project:

Photo, above right: The NYCHA Youth Chorus performs with its director, Larry Matthew, and pianist Brian Neff at a launch event on Thursday. (Katie Salmon/WQXR)