The University of South Carolina’s Southeastern Piano Festival, an internationally renowned celebration of some of the finest musicians in the world today, tends to be a fairly austere event, even if the music practically crackles with intensity. Performances are in large recital and concert halls where audiences listen with rapt attention, struck silent by the conventions of space as much as the virtuoso talent on display.
But that familiar atmosphere, with all of the stuffiness and gatekeeping it implies, is shattered by The Concert Truck, the Columbia-born brainchild of pianists Nick Luby and Susan Zhang. Essentially a makeshift concert stage built into a moving truck, the mobile stage will provide unusual and unique classical piano music experiences over the course of the festival and provide an obvious avenue for more casual or curious listeners to drop in and experience the music.
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“I think we were kind of thinking about how buskers are able to play outside. They just go to wherever they want to play. But we are never really able to do that,” says Zhang, an alumnus of the festival. “We can’t really pair the setting that we like with the kind of instrument that we want. So that was part of why we thought, ‘Maybe we need like a proper hall to do this.’ So having the piano is a special thing, to be able to bring a grand out like a proper concert hall, just a small one.”
The idea was born out of the two musicians’ experience in the Spark Collective, a collaborative, multi-genre graduate student ensemble at the University of South Carolina, and the SAVVY music entrepreneurship experience at the school. But Luby says part of the inspiration also came from simply seeking out places to practice while traveling.
“My grandfather of sorts took me on a little sailing trip where we would stop in marinas along the way, sailing up from Virginia to the Chesapeake Bay,” he recalls. “There were all these charming little town squares, but I wasn’t able to practice, and I missed having a piano dearly. So I would go into churches where I could play, and people would wander in off the street and sit and listen. It got me thinking, why is there not a mobile concert hall, in the truest sense of the idea?”
Putting concept together with action, the two pianists outlined their vision of a traveling concert hall and began securing funding, first through the Spark program and eventually through the Performing Arts Consortium and the South Carolina Arts Commission, among others. Rice Music lent them a piano for a while before they were able to purchase one, and they leaned on a variety of collaborators, including School of Music alum Alex Davis and John Hunsinger, stage manager for the South Carolina Philharmonic, for technical assistance and know-how.
“They did a lot of the main structural modifications to the truck that was donated to us,” Luby explains, noting that they also assisted with the initial prototype. “We’ve had a lot of help along the way.”
Since its construction, The Concert Truck has been used in a variety of ways, including a multistate tour that pushed the limits of its mobility.
“It’s a really interesting experience, to be able to play on the truck like this,” Zhang admits. “A lot of the rules that we learned, I guess while we were training and school, those sorts of circumstances we are used to go out the window. But the audience reaction has largely been positive. First, there’s sort of the novelty of the truck itself, but also I think people just react to the music being in a more relaxed and fun setting.”
“It’s just a very different experience from having to go to a concert hall and having that kind of expectation of how you’re supposed to behave. You’re just able to listen to the music on your own terms.”
The duo is clearly proud that their creation is being featured as part of the Southeastern Piano Festival and in their musical home from which it was conceived, calling it a “special honor,” but they also continue to look toward new possibilities that the truck can offer them.
“The mobility opens up a lot of doors and a lot of opportunities for new projects, programming things in spaces that we typically wouldn’t have access to,” Luby points out. “We want to spend some time on the road and get to know the country in ways that we haven’t been able to before.”
What: Southeastern Piano Festival
When: June 16-23
The Concert Truck will host Nick Luby and the Southeastern Piano Festival Associates on Boyd Plaza outside the Columbia Museum of Art on Monday, June 17, at noon. The event is free to attend.