San Diego Symphony to hold piano festival: ‘Upright & Grand’ concert series, Jan.-Feb. 2016

Although we may not think of the piano as a stringed instrument, it’s really the great-great-great grandchild of ancient harps, with more recent antecedents in 15th to 17th-century harpsichords. Its name is a shortened form of piano-forte (soft-loud in Italian), given by the man credited as the inventor of the modern piano, Bartolomeo Cristoforo, who was Keeper of the Instruments for a Medici prince at the turn of the 18th century.

His instrument offered a new range of volumes and dynamics, and later refinements by other Europeans made it popular with composers like Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Along the way came the upright piano, which took up less room, and in the mid-1800s, Steinway & Sons developed their version of the grand piano, which became a favorite in concert halls around the world.

Today, the piano continues its popularity as a solo and ensemble instrument, featured in orchestral and chamber music, jazz combos, and even guitar-centric rock ‘n’ roll.

Starting Friday, Jan. 8, 2016, San Diego Symphony presents a month-long piano festival called “Upright & Grand,” starring world-famous classical, jazz and contemporary performers. And they’re inviting the public to try their hands at lessons, workshops, or on one of 10 brightly painted pianos placed around the county.

Martha Gilmer, who became the Symphony’s CEO in 2014 after 35 years with Chicago Symphony, came up with the idea. The Chicago Tribune called her “a symphony executive of original artistic vision and strong collaborative instincts,” and she is certainly showing her skills with this ambitious keyboard extravaganza, in cooperation with La Jolla Music Society, California Center for the Arts in Escondido and Poway Onstage.

“I created the festival in Chicago in 2012, when I was struck by how many people I knew had pianos in their homes, but were just using them as furniture,” Gilmer said. “I thought about how the piano is really the easiest way into orchestral music, and about how many composers originally composed on piano, and how many of us took piano lessons as children, though we may have drifted away.”

The festival here will be grander in scope than Chicago’s, and promises to be an annual event. It includes a wide range of musical styles, and hopes to encourage San Diegans of all ages and backgrounds to engage in meaningful encounters with music and the arts.

One of the highlights will be “Beyond the Score,” a two-part approach to Mussorgsky’s “Pictures from an Exhibition” on Jan. 9 that offers a one-hour immersive, multimedia presentation of the composer’s life, times and creative process, followed by a full-out performance of Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s piece, which was originally composed for piano.

“It’s a live documentary, one of 30 programs I originally did in Chicago with my creative partner, Gerard McBurney,” Gilmer said. “They’re meant to be something like Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts in the 1960s, that turned a generation on to the joys of classical music. If Bernstein were alive today, he’d be using multimedia; his charisma as a communicator was his own built-in multimedia.”

Another festival highlight — and a free one at that — is “Hands On” Community Day at the Jacobs Music Center, noon to 5 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 16. There will be introductory piano lessons, master classes and workshops; a performance of Saint Saens’ “Carnival of the Animals;” a Q&A with pianist Jeremy Denk; amateur performances (“15 Minutes of Fame”); a piano-tuning demo; and as a grand finale, “Monster Piano,” with at least 10 pianists playing five grand pianos, with a minimum of four hands per instrument.

“Upright & Grand” sounds like a giant leap into the “vibrant programming” Gilmer passionately embraces. “We have world-class performers in all genres, but it’s not all serious,” Gilmer said. “It’s also fun and playful, and we’re hoping people will visit multiple pianos, and take selfies, and post them on Facebook, or send them to us, and we’ll post them on our page!”

Upright & Grand Piano Festival

What: 16 concerts featuring 12 pianists, from classical multi-Grammy-winner Emanuel Ax to local jazzman Joshua White and alt-rockstar Ben Folds, plus free ‘Hands On’ Day

When: Jan. 8-Feb. 8, 2016

Where: Jacobs Music Center at Copley Symphony Hall, 750 B St., downtown San Diego; and other venues, including Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s Sherwood Auditorium in La Jolla; California Center for the Arts in Escondido; Poway Center for the Arts

Cost: $20-$96

Schedule and tickets: (619) 235-0804.

Play Me: Look for painted pianos at Horton Plaza, Liberty Station and other public spaces.

Passport Cards: Get card stamped at each concert you attend; go to three and earn a free concert voucher