The 16th Street Mall bids the pianos adieu -- for a while -- with one last hurrah

It speaks to the popularity of the 16th Street Mall pianos that, on my way down to see 91-year-old ivory-tickler Lenore Frederick's informal piano send-off, I passed a high school girl pounding out a Rihanna song a block away -- by most accounts, the second-hand outdoor uprights have been an unqualified success. And though they're on their way to the shop this week for a few months of retuning, reconditioning and repainting, they'll be back in November -- until then, Frederick's olde-tymey rags provided a satisfying tide-me-over.

Originally hailing from a small town in Iowa, Frederick has been playing piano since she was five years old -- and it shows. A laid-back but approachable performer, Frederick played with easy concentration and remarkably nimble hands that, even at 91, still drifted effortlessly up the arpeggios -- her rendition of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee" -- always a tricky piece -- lacked nothing. Though she was classically trained, "Bumblebee" was one of the few classical pieces she played; most were more in line with '20s and '30s ragtime, including one rendition of "It had to be you." Between each song, she beamed at the photographers.

"I'm so happy you came," she told me. "I didn't expect to turn around and see anybody."

A lot of people turned out, though, including a cadre of cops that gathered and watched, charming the smaller kids by setting them on the seats of their motorcycles.

"Music has a way of bringing people together," observed Tami Door, CEO of the DDP. And indeed, the pianos have done well, both in terms of audience and participation. Starting out with an original batch she found on Craigslist, the DDP's Jen Cravens said she's getting more pianos now than she knows what to do with. "I get calls weekly from people who want to donate pianos," she said -- the current crop is at 12. Those 12 will get new paint jobs over the next couple of months, and Cravens said that, even there, she's getting more interest than she can accommodate from artists who want to paint them. "We actually have a waitlist," she said.

Door speculated that the appeal of the pianos might be their easy geniality -- people can pay attention or not, engage them or not, and if they do engage, there's no commitment. "We really like the pianos because we like to do things that aren't overly planned, that people can just drop in and out of," she said. "And even if they don't drop in, even if they just keep walking, it's something they'll notice and remember."

And she might just be right about that. Moments later, a crust punk in a homemade anarchy T-shirt and a jihad scarf paused for a moment across the street, took it in, smiled and walked on.

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Jef Otte
Contact: Jef Otte