Piano Six. Association of six pianists with the common goal of bringing low-cost, high-calibre live-concert music performances to small-town and rural Canada, and of exposing school children and music students to live piano music. Founded in 1994 by pianist Janina Fialkowska, the other original members of the ensemble were Angela Cheng, Marc-André Hamelin, Angela Hewitt, André Laplante, and Jon Kimura Parker. The not-for-profit Piano Six Foundation was directed by Mary Ingraham; the McConnell Family Foundation initially provided funding.
Each member of Piano Six individually toured a remote or rural area of Canada for a 10-day period each year, for only a nominal fee, with the assistance of, and under the auspices of, the umbrella organization. Locations were determined through applications from communities whose populations would not normally be visited by international-calibre musicians. The pianists performed in small halls, churches, or schools, often on standard upright instruments, two and three times daily, for audiences ranging from kindergarten students and music teachers to cross-sections of the town populace. Master classes and workshops were offered at each town. Each pianist determined his or her own programs, which normally focused on the classical piano repertoire but also included newly commissioned Canadian works, ragtime, pop songs, and television and movie themes.
The program was launched in February 1995 with concerts in Toronto (broadcast on CBC) and Quebec City. Although the program concentrated on individual rather than ensemble visits, the pianists occasionally appeared together, such as at the Festival international de Lanaudière in 1999, and the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival in 2000 (both times with replacement Bernadene Blaha).
The pianists of Piano Six appeared under this program in every Canadian province and in the Far North. Its inaugural season offered tours to rural Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Manitoba, and Ontario. In the second season, 1995-6, Cheng performed in the Maritime provinces, Parker throughout southeastern and interior British Columbia, Hamelin in Alberta and southern Manitoba, Laplante in the Ottawa Valley, Fialkowska in Prince Edward Island and Quebec's North Shore, and Hewitt in northern British Columbia. Communities and regions visited since the first season include the B.C. Interior, Nelson, and Squamish; Wainwright and Irma, Alberta; Tiger Hills and Pilot Mound, Manitoba; Iqaluit and Arctic Bay, Nunavut; Petawawa and North Bay, Ontario; St-Coeur-de-Marie, Quebec; Campbellton and Dalhousie, New Brunswick; and Wolfville, Nova Scotia. By the program's tenth year, the pianists had reached approximately 100 000 Canadians.
Piano Six commissioned piano compositions from such Canadian composers as Glenn Buhr, Alexina Louie, and Peter Tiefenbach. The pianists Blaha, Michael Kim, and Stéphane Lemelin joined Piano Six to help meet the demand for bookings. After completion of the association's tenth year, at which point its original commitment had been fulfilled, the -program was suspended. It resumed in 2004 under the name Encore Six (renamed Piano Plus in 2005), with the addition of singers and performers on non-keyboard instruments. Musicians participating in Piano Plus included violinist James Ehnes, cellist Shauna Rolston, and singers Nancy Argenta and Daniel Lichti.
Honours and Assessment
Piano Six won the National Music Award from the Jean A. Chalmers Foundation in 2000. The plaudits and praise showered on the group by audience members and teachers in the host communities made it clear that their performances were deeply appreciated. Organizers also reported greater success in fundraising projects, as well as increasing audiences, following a Piano Six member's visit. Although not the first organization to make possible classical concerts in small-town Canada, Piano Six's efforts were marked by their emphasis on affordability and on making classical music accessible to school children, by its concentration on the piano repertoire, and the provision of workshops for teachers and piano students.