Two pianos, hip-hop and kids: It’s Piano Slam 4

Arts / Article

Now here’s something a little unusual to start off your long Memorial Day weekend: a piano slam. Tomorrow night at the Knight Concert Hall, the Dranoff International Two-Piano Foundation of Miami presents the fourth in its series of these music, poetry and dance concerts, which is the final event in an annual project involving 70 Miami-Dade County middle and high schools.

Performing in the slam will be the Dutch piano duo Maarten and Jeroen Van Veen, brothers who won the Dranoff competition in 1995 (both are now involved with overseas management for the foundation). DJ Brimstone 127 and hip-hop poet Alexis Caputo will join 16 student poets as they perform work written for the free concert.

The whole show will be directed by Teo Castellanos, founder of the dance-theater company D-Projects.

The idea for the piano slams evolved over time out of the foundation’s regular visits to the schools with two-piano duos, says the Dranoff’s executive director, Carlene Sawyer.

“I am a poetry nut, and I heard one of the pianists during the First Rachmaninoff Two-Piano Suite explain to the kids the different poems that inspired Rachmaninoff to write it,” Sawyer said. At the same time, “a friend of mine had a daughter who was sneaking out of college at night to rap, and I just thought that could really work here.”

The other thing the Dranoff Foundation, now in its 26th year, was trying to do was build audiences for its concerts. Although the school sessions were always followed with free tickets for Dranoff concerts, in practice very few families took advantage of it, Sawyer said.

Even more important, the Foundation was looking for a way to truly involve local schoolchildren in artistic creation.

“The Dranoff is a major program for young professionals, artists who play two-piano music, and our winners come from all over the world. They don’t live here,” Sawyer said. “And so we thought in order to really engage the students, we have to give them something to do themselves with music.”

Besides introducing them to classical music, the spoken-word part of the effort required the kids to learn musical terms such as legato and crescendo, and to use music as the backdrop for their poems.

“They can write about what music means to them, or they can write about their sister going off to college, or the death of a grandmother, as long as they describe it in musical terms,” she said.

Students from all over the county are involved in the project, which originally began with just the schools in the Arsht Center’s immediate neighborhood downtown. But it soon grew, and for some of the children, such as those who have to travel from Homestead for the performance, it represents “a major commitment,” she said.

Although it’s a mash-up of hip-hop, rap poetry, dance (from the Thomas Armour Youth Ballet) and classical music, at heart it’s a music project, and tomorrow night’s program features a solid program from the two-piano repertory.

The prelude from Shostakovich’s early Suite (Op. 6) is on the program, along with other Russian works such as the “Easter” movement from the Rachmaninoff First Suite and a tango by Stravinsky. Saint-Saëns is represented by the “Hémiones” movement from his “Carnival of the Animals” and a movement from his Beethoven Variations (Op. 35), and there will be an arrangement of the “Prelude à la nuit” from Ravel’s “Rapsodie Espagnole.” The Ritual Fire Dance” from de Falla’s “El Amor Brujo” is also on the program with American composer Morton Gould’s “Blues, Waltzes and Echoes.”

“Music is the one that everyone encounters every day,” Sawyer said. “We tried to keep that focus as we made this creative-type adventure. It is really a learning experience to work with cross-genre artists; we have to arrange music, and we have to record music beforehand for the DJ table. It’s a learning curve.”

The Dranoff is already preparing for its next worldwide competition, which will be in May 2013. And the Foundation is hoping to keep the piano slams going in the meantime.

“I think the Arsht Center would really like that, and we would love it, too,” she said.

Seats for the concert tomorrow night at 7:30 are free, but tickets are necessary. Knight Concert Hall at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd.,  Miami; 305-949-6722;