How many grand pianos does it take to make the Pacific Northwest a better place? Well, 10 is a nice round number. It's also the number that...

Share story

How many grand pianos does it take to make the Pacific Northwest a better place?

Well, 10 is a nice round number. It’s also the number that popped into the mind of Portland-based recording artist and producer Michael Allen Harrison during a 2000 board meeting of his then-new philanthropic organization, the Snowman Foundation.

“We were talking about different concepts for a show,” says Harrison, a new-age composer, pianist, film scorer and the creator of Snowman. The foundation has raised almost $2 million in the last eight years for music education in schools and other youth and community programs in Oregon and Washington.

Snowman’s fundraising engine is an annual Portland concert called Ten Grands. This year, for the first time, the show is coming to Seattle, presented Saturday night at Benaroya Hall by Snowman and arts funder Poncho.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

Harrison says he had been looking in 2000 for a novel performance idea that would work as a way to raise money for youth- and community-oriented music programs in desperate need of instruments and cash.

“I was talking about a Portland pianists concept,” he says. “We would have 10 performers, 10 pianos, etc. Then a light bulb went off: Ten Grands. I would play with nine colleagues, have the pianos on platforms on a stage with great set design and use incredible lighting. It would be a variety show with classical, pop, jazz and new-age music.”

A musical legacy

Harrison booked the first Ten Grands show in the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland. It quickly sold out and became an annual event featuring other Northwest pianists from different disciplines, including jazzmen Tom Grant and Bogey Vujkov, blues and gospel legend Janice Scroggins, and fellow new-age composers David Lanz and John Nilsen. A sensational boogie-woogie performer from Toronto, Michael Kaeshammer, has been a Ten Grands fixture as well.

Ten Grands became a Portland institution, channeling proceeds to a wide variety of causes in Oregon and Southwest Washington. Snowman (named in part for American Dance Theater’s “The Snowman” ballet, which Harrison scored) has benefited youth service groups such as the Boys & Girls Clubs and Northwest Children’s Theater and School, and helped provide scholarships and music lessons for disadvantaged youth. It has also purchased pianos for schools and underwritten full-time salaries for music teachers.

“Schools increasingly view music as an extra,” says Harrison, who teaches composition to elementary school kids through an artist-in-residence program. “I grew up with music as part of the deal in school. You would go to the cafeteria and pick out an instrument and play in the band.”

Allies for a cause

Harrison’s conviction about greater support for music education is echoed by Gordon Hamilton, executive director of Poncho in Seattle. Hamilton says Poncho’s alliance with Snowman was a “win-win.”

“Both groups support arts organizations, and while Snowman has the knowledge base for Oregon and Southwest Washington, they don’t have it here,” Hamilton explains.

Poncho will distribute funds from the Benaroya show to the kinds of causes Snowman typically supports. Among local recipients will be the Seattle Youth Symphony, Seattle Music Partners and the Jeanne Ehrlichman Bluechel Foundation.

Fittingly, the relationship between Poncho and Snowman was brokered by a teacher, Kathy Fahlman Dewalt, a piano instructor in the Issaquah School District for 12 years. Dewalt booked Benaroya a year ago and landed impressive sponsorship.

“I’ve known Michael since third grade,” says Dewalt. “Our missions are the same.”

A show of power

Ten Grands shows typically include a few tunes involving all pianists, as well as solo spots, duets, trios and quartets. A DVD of the 2006 show reveals a rather dreamy looking set washed in blue, with pianos arranged to underscore individual artistry as well as the keyboard orchestra vision. The program flows smoothly but eclectically, opening with all players performing George Gershwin’s melody for “Summertime,” each pianist adding his or her own stylistic accent. From there, Nilsen’s stately but moving “Dakota Rose” is followed by Barbara Roberts’ thrilling version of Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in G Minor.”

Kaeshammer’s dizzying “Now?” yields to the understated gospel of Scroggins’ “Jesus Loves Me.”

Scroggins, Nilsen, Lanz, Roberts, Grant and Vujkov will join Harrison and a few other pianists in Seattle, including Regina Yeh (soon to be in charge of piano studies at Pacific Lutheran University), 13-year-old prodigy Michael Lee and jazz artist Deems Tsutakawa. Harrison says guest vocalists will also be on the bill.

The Seattle Ten Grands show could be the beginning of taking the concept on the road. Harrison says he’s had invitations to perform in Sun Valley, San Francisco and elsewhere.

“Ten Grands gets people’s attention,” says Harrison. “Then we’re able to say, music is important for kids everywhere. It helps them find a place in the world and develop confidence and a sense of belonging.”

Tom Keogh:

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.