From , Northwest Weekly, 10/31/99

Score for '20s ballet gets '90s-style debut

By Jerry Taylor, Globe Staff, 10/31/99

LOWELL - When Jeffrey Fischer takes the podium Nov. 18 in Durgin Hall to conduct George Antheil's "Ballet Mecanique," he will hear through his headset a countdown (3, 2, 1) in one ear and three simultaneous clicks in the other.

Then the University of Massachusetts music professor will give a downbeat to his nine human musicians - two pianists and eight percussionists, on bass drums, gong and xylophones.

The rest of the ensemble - 16 Yamaha Disklavier player pianos, seven bells suspended above the stage, and prerecorded sounds of sirens and airplane propellers - will contribute courtesy of a Power Macintosh 8100 offstage, monitored by Paul Lehrman, the man who made this premiere performance possible.

"Antheil didn't write any dynamics for the piece," Lehrman, an adjunct professor of sound recording technology at UMass, said. "But it's fortissimo up. Well, it's not a Led Zeppelin concert."

Lehrman, also a composer, writer and consultant, has spent the past 18 months working to produce the "Mechanical Ballet" as Antheil (pronounced AN-tyle) wrote it in 1924. The original score called for 16 player pianos to be synchronized, a feat not possible until MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) came along in 1982. Previous peformances, in Paris, New York and elsewhere, have had but one player piano.

"MIDI is a computer protocol that transfers information between electronic musical devices, whether played by hand or by computer," Lehrman said in his studio, above Durgin Hall on the UMass campus in Lowell, before a rehearsal of the ballet Monday afternoon.

"It's what allows us to do this piece. Rather than have 16 Disklaviers synchronized to each other, we can send MIDI data to all 16, so they're all playing in synch, with every note and chord struck with the accuracy of a millisecond," Lehrman went on.

"Antheil wrote four player piano parts in his score. I had to take that score and transcribe it for the computer. I sat down with his score at my keyboard and played notes into the computer, one note, one chord, one part at a time, to create this computer file that had all the notes in the proper timings. Then I'd have the computer play it back to me."

Lehrman spent two weeks at this in his attic studio on Brooks Street in Medford, seated at his keyboard facing a computer screen, with 13 synthesizers piled on either side.

He embarked on this project when a New York music publisher, G. Schrimer, asked him to produce a complete score of the work by Antheil (1900-59). Yamaha offered the use of its Disklaviers. Other companies are providing sound systems and recording equipment for the 8 p.m. concert, which will be carried live in a WGBH webcast (

Lehrman has also created a Web site for the concert's preparation,

"We're almost sold out, which is easy when you're giving away tickets," Lehrman said. Durgin Hall, on Wilder Street, seats 1,000.

"There's absolutely no cash coming in or going out for this concert," he said. "Yamaha and other companies are donating equipment so we can do it. Jonathan Wyner of Cambridge has volunteered to record the concert. We hope a CD will be possible. I'm talking to a couple of record labels."

Although Lehrman is confident of the technological aspects, he said the tempo of the ballet must still be determined.

"There are all kinds of crazy time signatures, 4:4, 5:8, 17:32, 40:8, but the tempo is uniform," he said. "We determined that 152 beats per minute was the tempo Antheil wanted, but that's impossible. The computer can play as fast as anybody wants, but that's too fast for human beings. Even the Disklaviers can't play at 152. My research tells me their maximum is about 133. What the student percussion ensemble will be able to play, we're not certain."

The pianists for the concert are two other UMass professors, Juanita Tsu of Acton and John McDonald of Medford [this is an error: McDonald is chairman of the music department at Tufts University].

Lehrman, 47, shares a brown Victorian house with his wife, Sharon Kennedy, a story-teller who teaches at Lesley and Salem State colleges.

A former radio engineer and announcer who has taught music at summer camps, Lehrman plays piano in a jazz quintet that gave a concert at Tufts University last week to benefit the Brooks Estate Preservation Association of Medford. He began composing music in fifth grade on Long Island and studied bassoon at the State University of New York at Purchase, where he graduated in 1975.

Lehrman has composed the music for a Discovery Channel documentary on the Port Chicago Mutiny in World War II, and for a three-part History Channel documentary on Germany's military-industrial complex.

The Nov. 18 concert will also include percussion works by Roldan and Cage/Harrison as well as Lehrman's arrangement of the final movement of Mendelssohn's Fourth (Italian) Symphony for eight Yamaha Disklaviers.

"I chose the Mendelssohn Fourth's finale because it's so contrapuntal," Lehrman said. "Around 1900 there were a lot of arrangements of symphonies for four-hand piano so people could play them at home."

This story ran on page 11 of the Boston Globe's Northwest Weekly on 10/31/99.
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