Billy Joel, Dave Brubeck and Robert Levin are among the stars joining the Smithsonian Institution and PBS in celebrating the 300th anniversary of the piano.
The PBS special, "Piano Grand! A Smithsonian Celebration," will feature some of the finest works ever written for the instrument and some of its greatest living masters in a two-hour program that airs November 29.
"The piano is an instrument which is universal to different music styles and genres. ... We felt that as many of those as possible needed to be reflected in the TV program and the accompanying CD," said John Potthast of Maryland Public Television, which co-produced the show with the Smithsonian. "It was actually a situation were the probable repertoire was developed first, rather than artist first."
One of the major pieces included in the program is Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 ("Emperor"), which Levin performs with the Smithsonian Chamber Orchestra.
"When I was a kid I was dragged to Pittsburgh to see the Beethoven concerto and I was so moved by it and it stuck with me forever," said executive producer Wesley Horner. "So when the opportunity came to produce this show I had to include that."
Other classical highlights include a performance of Haydn's Piano Trio #43 in C by Levin, Kenneth Slowick and Marilyn McDonald; Katia & Marielle Labeque playing Bernstein's "America"; and Jean-Yves Thibaudet performing the Nocturne in E-Flat by Chopin. Late cartoonist Charles Schulz's Beethoven-playing "Peanuts" character Schroeder makes an appearance, as well.
Joel gets to wear several hats on the program. Not only is he the host, but he also performs his songs "Piano Man" and "Baby Grand." Later in the program pianist Hyung-ki Joo plays Joel's classical composition, Fantasy ("Film Noir").
"It was a great honor to work with such a great songwriter like Billy Joel," Joo said. "He's got enormous instincts and talent. I think many people think he's doing something different, but he's simply returning to his former passion, which he started with. I take my hat off to him. It was a lot of fun to work with him."
Other highlights include Diana Krall and her trio performing "Let's Fall in Love"; Jerry Lee Lewis revisiting "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On" and "Great Balls of Fire"; and Brubeck playing his "Thank You (Dziekuje)."
"Dave Brubeck, who's 80-something and still on the road, was one of the special moments for me," said Horner. "He's urbane, sophisticated. He played simply solo piano. It was beautiful."
On the show, Lewis talks about what the piano means to him.
"Sometimes I think the piano chose me," Lewis said. "I think it was mostly a God-given talent and I've used it the way that I thought it should be used. When I was 8 years old my folks bought me a piano and I went from there and I taught myself."
The program coincides with a special exhibit at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., which includes one of the first three pianos ever built by inventor Bartolomeo Cristofori and Liberace's rhinestone-encrusted concert grand.
"In terms of musical instruments, the piano is the most [important]. It's been at the heart of virtually all music created since [its invention]," said Potthast. "It's definitely been the composer's tool for centuries - the image of the composer sitting on the stool writing. It is at the heart of a lot of performances. I don't think music as we know it today would exist without the piano."
"It's a full orchestra right in your bare hands," said Horner. "It's the ultimate music machine. It can do anything. It'll make you laugh, it'll make you cry."