The black Yamaha piano sat in the middle of the wooden platform stage as guests quickly filled up the seats of the recital hall in the Staller Center.
The piano was illuminated with red and blue lights, and shining onto the walls on either side of the stage were the words “Renaissance Jazz.”
Shortly after 8 p.m., Hiromi Uehara, a Japanese pianist and composer, took to the stage. She walked graciously toward the piano, wearing grey leggings with a black tank top and zig-zag black and white-striped Puma sneakers. She sat down at the piano and hung her head in silence for a moment. Then, the lights glistening on center stage turned to a warm hue of orange and she began to play her first song.
Uehara performed at the Staller Center on Saturday night, but she is no stranger to the venue. She received a standing ovation the first time she played at the Staller Center for the piano jazz summit in 2011.
“I’m happy to be back at Stony Brook,” Uehara said addressing the audience. During her performance, Uehara displayed a dual personality. When she first entered the stage and approached the piano, she was coy and peacefully bowed to the audience. However, once she began to play, her persona transformed.
Uehara’s musical style is unique and unlike any traditional piano recital. As she performed, she lost herself in the melodies. Her eyes closed and her head bobbed back and forth while her fingers scurried up and down the piano keys. At times, she was so intensely into the song that she jumped onto her feet. She also hummed along to herself and often released a gasp while fiercely playing.
The show was sold out and the packed audience consisted of a mainly older crowd with a sprinkling of Stony Brook students. There was an intimate, conversational setting throughout the night and Uehara engaged the audience by stopping after every few songs to introduce the titles and share a short story about the piece. She joked about the first song she performed, attributing its happy tune to one of her favorite snacks to enjoy when she lived in Boston for five years. The name of the song was “Cape Cod Chips,” she said.
All of the songs she performed were her own original, composed pieces and she played every one without a single sheet of music. During many parts of her songs, she would close her eyes and tap her foot along with the beat. The lights on the stage would change color depending on the tone of the song. For example, when she performed a softer, more somber piece, the lights that radiated down on the piano created an icy blue effect.
“Each piece was so vastly different. It kind of felt like it was painting a picture,” Sierra Knotts, a resident of Centereach who attended the show, said. “It was very cool, very artistic.”
Every song offered something a little different to the audience. For one of her songs, she changed half of the keys of the piano to sound like a harpsichord. The keys being struck by her left hand produced a typical piano sound, while the keys being played by her right hand produced a “Renaissance” sound.
The fifth song she played was inspired by a painting, she told the audience. When she wrote the song, she wanted to name it after the name of the painting. However she told the audience that the painting had no name. The audience laughed as she told them that she then named the song “Old Castle by the River in the Middle of the Forest.” As she performed that song, she used different techniques to make the song unique, such as knocking on the inside of the piano or plucking on the strings.
Another technique she incorporated while playing was a trill that was so fast and lasted so long the sound produced seemed like it would have come from a synthesizing device, not someone playing the piano. That was one of the many instances where the audience began a gradual clap in the middle of a song.
“She is so physical. I have never seen anybody play the piano like that,” Paula Wheeler, a Stony Brook resident who attended the show, said. “She almost climbs into it.”
The ending of her final song started off with her rubbing her two hands together and then leaping into powerful playing. She finished with a bang and the crowd erupted and she jumped up from her seat. The audience stood and cheered as she waved and exited the stage. However, they did not stop until Uehara returned for one more song.
Uehara described her performances as something different every time.
“Every song is like a ride,” she said. “I’m always trying to find something that I have never played before, it’s like treasure hunting and whenever I find the treasure that I have never seen before in playing. It really excites me and makes me happy.”
She described playing her music by using the metaphor of climbing a mountain and searching for treasure. She said when you know the route, it is easier to take the same one, but it is never as beautiful as before.
“If you know that it is there it is never as striking as the first time you found it,” she said. “So even if I have to be adventurous and go to the way I have never taken before and I might not find anything as beautiful as waterfall, but even just a little flower, if it’s the first time, it can be beautiful,” she said about the way she improvises in some of her songs when she performs.
“My dream is making people happy with my music,” Uehara said. “Somehow, I hope I could make them happy in some way,” she said regarding the audience.
“It’s such a big thing, the audience takes very precious hours of their life to come to the concert and I truly appreciate that,” she added.“I want to do my best to be responsible for that very hours and I can only do my best. Hopefully it really brings something to their life.”