Review: Chess in three movements | St. Louis Public Radio

Review: Chess in three movements

Sep 14, 2011

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 14, 2011 - The history of music is an account of quite limitless invention, innovation and adaptation. There's evidence, for example, that flutes were made of animal bones as long as 37,000 years ago, but one suspects that for millennia before that invention, prehistoric men and women and children were making musical sounds with their hands and feet, with rocks and sticks and sinews -- and of course with their own voices.

Writing prose, as Cole Porter said to music, anything goes. And so it goes with musical instruments. Modern musical instruments differ dramatically from their ancestors. The oboe I play today is very different from the oboe of Bach's time.

And then there are instruments created imaginatively from materials and objects that versatile, non-traditional music-makers find at hand -- for example, mellow-sounding steel drums from 55-gallon drums. Still, who would expect a chessboard to become a keyboard for music.

Guido van der Werve did. He thought it would be a terrific idea and set about making such an instrument, a chessboard layout with the mechanics of a piano. It is an elegant object, square; and the surface of it is arranged in 64 squares, eight squares by eight, which coincidentally comprise the musical octaves of the major and minor scales.

On Tuesday evening at the newly opened World Chess Hall of Fame in the Central West End, van der Werve and pianist Matthew Bengtson played this instrument to the moves of a game created by chess grandmaster Leonid Yudasin. The piece, of van der Werve's composing, is called "Number Twelve: Chess Piano Concert in Three Movements."

A string ensemble of nine musicians -- four violins, two violas, two cellos and a bass -- accompanied the duo at chessboard. Ward Stare, resident conductor of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, conducted. He responded to the chess-playing pianists rather than they to his conducting.

As a move was completed and a note was sounded, the strings responded to the note produced on the chessboard. The pawns, rooks, knights, bishops, kings pieces were pressed down on the squares on the board, which in turn slipped down a half an inch or so, to activate the hammers that struck the strings to produce music.

Here endeth the mechanical and musical explanations, tortured as they must appear to the patient reader. Nevertheless, it is important to take into account the technical side of this innovation because of its genuine inventiveness and fascinating qualities. Any suspicion that might lurk in the cynical mind that this might be a come-on was dispatched, Van der Werve's music is quite listenable and the sound of the chess-box piano was melodious. The Symphony musicians played with their usual distinction.

Chess, it seems to me, is intellectual and solemn and contemplative to the point of melancholy. "Number Twelve" struck me as fitting neatly into that serene and reflective groove, and was indeed melancholy, but without the depressive part of that condition. The picture it painted for me was country-house romantic, a pretty library room on a rainy afternoon, where an option, besides settling in with a good book, was to play a game of chess.

Chess playing, like music making, is cerebral, physical, mathematical, idiosyncratic, theoretical, complicated, intense and gratifying, It consists of moments of extraordinary activity, then rests, or moments of reflection. Such activity was reflected in the piano parts of the concert. As the music progressed through the three movements, activity increased as the moves on the board took a faster turn.

Symphony music director David Robertson noted that only one game is played in "Number Twelve," and that it ends in a stalemate.

And in a very moving, entirely poetic and philosophical way, so does the music.

At the end of the piece, after the stalemate is understood, and the piano plays no more, the violins and violas take up a sustained, mesmerizing "A." This note, which is played to tune the orchestra at the beginning of every performance, becomes the final note of the van der Werve concert.

But of even greater consequence than this musical Alpha and Alpha is the realization that the chess piano concert has no ending. Stare said a musician called to his attention the fact that there is no concluding bar line, or music end, in the score.

Right, he said.

Thus it is that "Number Twelve," like the chess game that animates it, is unresolved. It never really ends.