Pick a note, any note

You might notice something odd about the program," a small figure quietly remarked from behind his piano, "and that is that there's no program printed in it." A bemused chuckle floated through the hall as the audience shifted in their seats, eagerly waiting to hear what sounds would greet them next. The concert had opened with a double cartwheel and a raucous mixture of Viennese waltz, "My Way" and "Fur Elise." It was anybody's guess what he might do next.

Just by his entrance, it was certain Hakan Ali Toker was no ordinary pianist, and this would prove to be no ordinary evening of piano music. The John Waldron Arts Center was something straight from a Dali painting Friday night, with Turkish rugs, drums, fruit baskets, Greek columns and a red high-heeled shoe dangling from the top of the piano. The eclectic surroundings proved prophetic as Toker put his talents to work fusing Beethoven with Gershwin, "Old MacDonald" with Maurice Ravel and all the while taking them through every genre from Baroque to jazz. He opened the show by taking requests from the audience for specific tunes. After he gathered a few, he would masterfully improvise over them, cleverly weaving together a piece on the fly that startled, amused and often touched the listener.

His spontaneity and skill seemed to know no bounds. Other materials were quickly gathered from which he could improvise his works. Phone numbers were translated swiftly into notes, becoming the thematic material for a waltz gone awry. Mid-concert two improvisational dancers appeared, and the three of them created a spontaneous dialogue. Often Toker would stand up from his piano to get a better glimpse of their movements, transferring their gestures to his keyboard.

To conclude the program he asked for a note from each member of the audience, carefully writing each one down. He then extracted motives from the set that deemed themselves worthy of use and created a grand finale to the evening with a lengthy and virtuosic creation.

What was so engaging about Toker's improvisations was their skillful balance of sincere expression and technical know-how. He proved himself to be well-versed in most musical forms, first taking a tango theme on a time trip through the stylistic periods of Western classical music (from Baroque to Bartok). Later he played a traditional Turkish tune, accompanied by drums, causing members of the audience to rise from their seats and dance.

Despite the technical display he gave, one came away feeling as if the concert had been less of an acrobatic exercise and more of a genuine confessional. He opened the second half with some written compositions he had done while still a young student in Turkey. These were simpler pieces with no improvisation involved, but were, in his own words, "photographs of (his) past" which he shared with the audience. From the lists of familiar tunes, phone numbers, waltzes and dance gestures, Mr. Toker created a truly unique and original voice. For the course of one "odd" program, the audience was fortunate enough to listen.

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