Walt Matzke, a part-time Milford resident, first came up with the idea of having a performance featuring four pianists two decades ago in western Pennsylvania. Since then he has moved to Michigan and brought Piano Extravaganza with him. While most of the performances have taken place on the west side of the state, Matzke recently brought his concert concept to Huron Valley Milford High School in December, where local choirs and pianists were incorporated into the show. “The Piano Extravaganza was fun for the entire community as it showcased the entire community! It was an incredible experience for all of the students involved; I look forward to future concerts with four pianos!” said Maryann Lambrecht, Milford High School’s vocal director. Added Milford High School Band Director Paul Schreiber,
“Our kids had a great time performing in the drum line and percussion in the Piano Extravaganza concerts in December! It was a great musical showcase for the Milford area and for the community. It was well worthwhile.” Matzke will continue conducting his core four pianists throughout the state of Michigan and around the country this year, including a performance on Detroit PBS. His group has also sent in a DVD audition to NBC’s America’s Got Talent for this upcoming season.
Over 20 years ago, you first developed the idea for Piano Extravaganza. Please describe what inspired you to hold this type of concert two decades ago in western Pennsylvania.
WM: I knew several pianists that were pretty talented in the community, and I just wanted to give them the opportunity to perform, so that’s where the idea came from.
Why did you decide to incorporate numerous pianists? How do you choose who makes up your core four?
WM: Just because so many pianists never get an opportunity to perform. So this is a great way to bring them together. Typically, pianists accompany groups or choirs or something like that, but they aren’t actually performing. (Piano Extravaganza) gives them a chance to be front and center.
We audition people for the core group. Then for the local artists, we are just pretty much open to community pianists.
How has the concert grown over the past two decades, and why did you decide to bring the show to Michigan? How have audiences responded? What should new audiences expect?
WM: I actually moved to Michigan so it kind of followed me. The big thing this year is we are going to be touring throughout the United States, from here to Florida and here to Texas and Arizona.
Typically, no one knows what to expect, and they’re just in awe. Quite often, they say it’s the best concert they’ve ever attended.
Audiences should expect great entertainment and phenomenal musicians. I stand amazed when I hear the pianists play.
Part of the charm of the performances is that you bring in local talent. Why did you decide to bring in local musicians? How has this local talent added to the production?
WM: Part of our goal is community (promotion), so not only do we bring in local pianists, but we bring in youth choirs, adult choirs, and we bring in local instrumentalists — just to make it a community event so that it’s not just my four pianists, but it’s something that is of high-quality that the whole community can enjoy and also be proud of in their community.
(Audiences) have been ecstatic. (We have received) great community support. The great thing is that you know every group is different and every community is different, so every concert takes on a new personality. It’s always fresh and new, which is great for me as the conductor.
Please describe a typical performance for us. What types of songs and arrangements are selected? How much work and preparation goes into putting on a show like this, especially when incorporating local performers?
WM: I put together all of the programs. Typically, we try to fill the program with things people recognize. So we use classical music that everybody knows. I’ve composed a few pieces that are very entertaining. And we do some pop stuff like even Led Zeppelin and Queen, and then we do Broadway stuff.
I’m a classical musician so I tend to really love the classical stuff, and I love the fact that non-classical musicians — it’s my passion to let them know why I love it and help the audience love, it as well.
The local musicians rehearse on their own, and I come in and rehearse with them two or three times. They rehearse with the pianists once or twice at the very end at the dress rehearsals. But typically, it’s three or four months of preparation. It takes me probably six months to write all the music for a concert.
Part of the appeal of your show is that it’s not only an auditory delight, but a visual one. Please describe how you manage this and why you decided to incorporate this aspect into the Piano Extravaganza.
WM: So the one thing that I’ve tried to do is make it so that it’s entertaining to watch. So there’s a lot of interplay between the pianos. The melody may move from piano one to pianos three and four or bounce around. I try to make it as entertaining to watch as it is to listen. It’s interesting. A lot of people say that, “I want to come back to see your concert again just so I can watch it, so I don’t miss something.” That’s unique because it’s a music concert.
You recently brought your Piano Extravaganza to Milford High School for a Christmas concert in early December, your first performance on the east side of the state. How did it go? Do you have any upcoming performances in Michigan? Where else do you plan to perform?
WM: It was awesome. All the different groups from Milford High School and from the middle school helped us out. Everybody at Milford High School and the schools was great to work with, and the community just loved it. We’re going to be back next December, as well.
We have performances in Traverse City, Saginaw, and West Bloomfield this fall, and Zeeland, Holland, and Montague. We’ll be going to Pennsylvania, Ohio, possibly Arizona and California, as well.
We’ve also heard that your group was auditioning for NBC’s America’s Got Talent. When did you audition? When do you hear back from them?
WM: I talked to the producers and because we are so unique it was difficult to get four pianos together. We actually auditioned with a DVD. Within the next five to six weeks, we should hear back from them.
If you could have any four pianists from throughout history and today playing in your production, who would you choose and why?
WM: Oh, my goodness. That’s a tough one. I think I’d pick the four that I have right now. Just because they are all friends and it’s an amazing experience to perform concert after concert with great friends.