Discarded pianos prepared for an encore on downtown streets

MIDDLEBURY — Yinglei Zhang has earned her well-earned artistic reputation by using a thin brush to deftly place ink and watercolor strokes on delicate rice paper.
But her latest canvas weighs in at several hundred pounds and will require some burly football players to move it from her studio when it is ready.
“This is crazy!” she said with a playful chuckle, as she painted another vibrant plum blossom on a panel of an upright piano that along with five other stunningly decorated pianos will be placed in random outdoor spots in downtown Middlebury on Memorial Day. There, they will tickle the fancy of passersby, who will in turn get to tickle the ivories of the instruments through July 4 as part of the lead-up to the Town Hall Theater’s 5th birthday bash next month.
The piano project is the latest playful promotion from the Town Hall Theater (THT), which each year surprises folks with a special event aimed at stirring up interest and financial support for the visual and performing arts center in downtown Middlebury. One year, THT boosters unleashed “King Kong” on the THT tower; the next year, an alien spacecraft hovered onto the scene. But this year, THT Executive Director Doug Anderson wanted to do something even bigger, in order to acknowledge the five-year anniversary (June 22) of the facility’s grand opening.
“We like big, bold public events,” Anderson said.
Anderson noted how public piano displays had been proven hits in places like New York City and Hanover, N.H. And there seems to be no current shortage of old upright pianos that during the early 1900s were fixtures in family living rooms but eventually lost their places to radios, televisions and video systems. Anderson recently read an article stating that thousands of upright pianos are being junked every week — a fact he said was confirmed by Bristol-based piano restorer and tuner Ed Hilbert, a longtime supporter of THT.
“(Hilbert) said ‘I have a bunch of pianos I want to give away,’” said Anderson, who was happy to take a half-dozen and farm them out to local artists with instructions to dress them up to their fancy.
The local artists involved are Nancie Dunn, Louis Megyesi, Claudia Carl, Zhang, Alice Schermerhorn and students at Mary Hogan School, and Elinor Friml of THT. All have been busy adding their own flourishes to the pianos.
Zhang had considered painting an iconic Chinese landscape featuring a high mountain and running water. But she instead chose to paint floral images representing the four seasons. So Zhang’s piano is adorned with wonderful paintings of bamboo, mountain orchids, plum blossoms and chrysanthemums, known as the “four gentlemen.” These plants have become a Chinese cultural symbol for integrity, beauty and strength, Zhang noted.
The Middlebury artist has pretty much completed her piano project and is now waiting for the all-weather paint and acrylic to dry. It took her a while to complete the work, which she has sandwiched in between trips to China.
“When I say I will do something, I keep my word,” Zhang said.
“It came out pretty good,” she added. “I am happy with it.”
People can catch an early glimpse of Zhang’s piano at an open house at her studio at 56 High St., from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday — part of the Vermont Open Studio Weekend (See story, Page 17A).
Meanwhile, there will be no mistaking Megyesi’s piano. Its centerpiece, just above the keyboard, is a picture-perfect scene of the Otter Creek Falls and Battell Bridge as viewed from the banks of the Marble Works. The falls spill down the face of the piano, which features an additional scene of a path leading to an arbor gateway and picket fence with trees, clouds and a restful landscape. The trim is adorned with a leafy, spiraling vine.
“I thought it was a good way to celebrate the 5th anniversary of the THT,” Megyesi, who is based in East Middlebury, said of the piano project. “I enjoyed it.”
Anderson is looking forward to seeing the pianos suddenly fall into place for their “last hurrah.” While they might not emit the dulcet tones they once did in their heyday, the pianos will be serviceable.
“Overnight, downtown Middlebury will become a festive sculpture garden of fantastical pianos, and simultaneously it will be an outdoor music hall,” Anderson said. “Just driving along Main Street will be a joy as you come across one of these pianos every block or so.”
Theater officials are working with the town of Middlebury in placing the instruments in visible but safe locations. Each piano will be assigned a volunteer custodian who will make sure the instrument is locked and covered at night and during inclement weather.
And when the pianos’ final moments in the sun have lapsed, they may find some new homes. Anderson will entertain e-mail offers from anyone wishing to own one of the musical canvases, with proceeds going to help the nonprofit THT.
“If it happens, it happens,” Douglas said of the pianos’ potential future as objets d’art.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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