After months of planning, which included creating new compositions and moving a piano into the Triton Museum of Art’s Warburton Gallery, the Triton Free Fridays performance series ended with a standing ovation as Santa Clara pianist and composer, Sakaguchi Benjamin Akeala Belew, performed Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures and an Exhibition” on June 5. In addition performing Mussorgsky’s suite, Belew debuted five new movements he composed in the style of the original that were intertwined throughout the original piece.
“I tried to make the new pieces sound like they were there to begin with,” said Belew. “I tried to match his style, which is very thin. I add thick textures to my own compositions. I like things happening throughout the piece and playing with both hands. He doesn’t do much of that. He uses broad strokes, and I did that with mine, too. I wanted the whole thing to sound like the same composer wrote it. I wanted it to be very cohesive.”
Belew, who considered the project good composing practice and felt the show went the way he planned, said the process of writing the compositions went quickly. Instead of simply inserting his new movements at the end of Mussorgsky’s pieces, Belew scattered his contributions throughout, using the new compositions to add and extend aspects of the original he felt lacked.
“The second half of the original is pretty strong,” said Belew. “The first half, I didn’t think was as strong, so I put my stronger pieces in the first half to balance it out.”
Before performing “Pictures at an Exhibition,” with a slide show of works designed by the Triton Museum of Art’s Chief Curator Preston Metcalf showing artwork that inspired or illustrated the music, Belew performed two of his original pieces, “Moonbeams” and “Sonatine.”
“‘Sonatine’ is strong and furious and I think it’s a piece people can get into,” said Belew. “It is also one of my more recent compositions. ‘Moonbeams’ is a piece people seem to like and I wanted to include it.”
For an encore, an audience member was chosen to play a series of random notes, which Belew then used as inspiration to improvise a completely original piece on-the-spot.
“I like improvising,” said Belew. “It’s fun, and I thought we should do it some day at a show. It was something we had been toying with for quite some time, so we tried it. I broke the keys the audience member played into two sections and focused on one section more than the other. It seemed to be well-received.”
The standing-room only performance, which capped the 2014-2015 season, was well-received, with audience members praising Belew’s piano skills as they exited the museum.
“[It was a] brilliant performance and wonderful improvisation with audience input,” said Sunnyvale resident Barbara Gasdick.
A performance of “Moonbeams” can be viewed on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0n5xlfktc14. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for performance/commission inquiries or to get on Belew’s mailing list.
Triton Free Fridays are presented by the City of Santa Clara and the Santa Clara Cultural Commission with support from the Triton Museum of Art, Santa Clara Performing Arts Foundation and Santa Clara Sister Cities Association. Next season begins in September and information will be posted on the Triton Free Fridays Facebook page, www.facebook.com/tritonfridayperformances, when it becomes available.