Saturday, Nov. 16

CURRENT ArtSpace + Studio, Chapel Hill

The concert hall is designed so that there’s nothing to focus on but how perfectly—or not—the notes are played. The audience is often sequestered in the dark, in their own private worlds with the music. The seats bend toward the stage, like sunflowers, where the musicians shine in spotlights, so far away, so separate. 

Carolina Performing Arts’ CURRENT is not a concert hall. It’s a performance studio in a glowing glass cube at UNC, and it’s where Sarah Cahill played piano music by women, written from the eighteenth century to the twenty-first, for five continuous hours on Saturday night. The essential privacy of the piano recital was but one of the rules of live classical music that the marathon seemed designed to challenge.

To be clear, no one was expected to sit through all five hours, though the notion that it was optional, rather than mandatory, made it more enticing to settle in for a long haul. There’s a thin line between getting your money’s worth and a hostage situation, and having the agency to move around, come and go at will, bring in food, and even—gasp!—check your phone made the program feel generous rather than daunting.

CURRENT was brightly lit, with cafe-style tables throughout and low-slung couches around the glass perimeter. Feeling so visible—both to other patrons and to the students streaming outside, under whose curious gazes I felt like a specimen in a terrarium for old people—while someone played world-class piano a few feet away definitely took some getting used to.

Entering in the second half of the second hour, I chose a table seat right behind the baby grand, a vantage from which Cahill was hidden by the raised lid. My view zoomed down the piano’s golden harp, and I became mesmerized by the action of the damper and the reflection of the hammers on the frame. It was the first time I’d ever watched a concert this way, staring into the innards of the instrument, among other piano-recital firsts, like getting a rock-club handstamp (a small blue star) and sitting next to someone eating Chipotle.

Cahill is known for her incisive championing of avant-garde and contemporary music. At the start of hour three, she took a short break to prepare the piano for Annea Lockwood’s very cool 1996 piece, Ear-Walking Woman, which sounds a lot like a whale playing a gamelan and nothing like a piano. After bedecking the strings with coins, bubble wrap, and other bits and bobs, Cahill had to shush a couple of patrons next to her who didn’t realize the piece had begun when she started to rub the frame with a rubber mallet, emitting tiny moans.

Using the mallet, a bowl, a glass, and two polished stone eggs that made excellent sproingy sounds when dropped on the strings, Cahill animated the piece’s zings and rumbles expertly. But she also brought passion and sincerity to more traditional fare like Hélène de Montgeroult’s Sonata No. 9, Op. 5 No. 3, a gorgeous and spirited bit of virtuosity that followed Ear-Walking Woman and seemed to disperse a hint of relief among the smiles of those who had come to hear some piano music.

Throughout the hour, the program kept our ears fresh by modulating between the severe—Elizabeth A. Baker’s mathematically recombined Four Planes was as cryptic as Webern’s bagatelles—to the sumptuous, in the lushly tiered first movement of Žibuoklė Martinaitytė’s 2009 piece Heights and Depths of Love. Of course, the pieces probably contained some mistakes, a fudged note or jumpy tempo here and there. I didn’t really notice, as it’s virtually impossible not to look at and think about people when they’re sitting all around you, also observing everyone else for cues on how to inhabit this unfamiliar social contract.

It seems that we all tacitly agreed we would use our phones but not really film or take pictures. You can see the slippery slope from here to piano recitals turning into the same distracted Instagram-fests that museums are becoming, which is why I wouldn’t suggest that this casual format should replace the concert hall entirely. But there’s something invitingly contemporary about it, a vital complement to preservation for the vitality of classical piano music.