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‘Piano Diaries’ doesn’t quite hit all the right notes

Peter Saltzman stars his one-man show 'Piano Diaries' Anthenaeum Theatre.  | Phoby Dean LPrairie

Peter Saltzman stars in his one-man show "Piano Diaries" at the Anthenaeum Theatre. | Photo by Dean La Prairie

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Somewhat recommended

When: Through July 6

Where: Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport

Tickets: $27 ($12 for children under age 10)

Info: (773) 935-6875;

Run time: 85 minutes, with
no intermission

Updated: July 1, 2014 6:45AM

Pianist-composer Peter Saltzman’s self-penned one-man show, “Piano Diaries,” now in one of the small studio spaces at the Athenaeum Theatre, is one part TED Talk and one part aspiring Hershey Felder “portrait of the artist.”

The 85-minute piece is at its best when Saltzman just sits at the piano and plays — superbly. And you might well find yourself wishing he did a whole lot more of that playing, whether making his way through the work of jazz masters McCoy Tyner and Randy Weston (his early favorites), the blues, the fugues of Bach, a lovely riff on Beethoven’s “Fur Elise,” a lilting tune by Brazil’s Antonio Carlos Jobim, or his own pieces, including “Mixolydian Waltz,” a work he wrote and recorded when he was just 17.

The show is at its weakest when Saltzman sings (a riff on Sting’s “Every Breath You Take” was close to painful). And while his analysis of the art of composition and improv is intriguing, he tries too hard to spin a creation myth around the whole process as he suggests the tension between the classical (form-driven) and the quantum (chance-driven). His skills as an actor are limited, although he and his director, Edwin Wald, have tried to liven things up with some playful “talking head” video cartoons of great composers.

The Chicago-bred Saltzman begins with ruminations on “nothing” and “something,” suggesting that the art of making art is a mysterious combination of both. And he conjures up the David Lynch-like dream he had in his teens — a dream that led to his writing one of his earliest pieces, even if it was derivative of his soulful heroes, Tyner and Weston. He also talks about the parade of other composers, both jazz-based and classical, who invariably left an imprint on him as he made his way (more or less) through college and then (more or less) through parts of two fine conservatory programs (at the University of Indiana in Bloomington, and the Eastman School of Music inRochester, New York).

“What was I looking for?,” Saltzman asks. The answer turns out to be his own mix of all styles, from classical to pop, but mostly a strong turn towards “song.” On the evidence here, it was a wrong turn, even if Saltzman insists that “music needs grounding in song or it is just technique.” (I would beg to differ, and ironically enough, Saltzman’s fine performances of non-lyric-bearing pieces is the proof.)

Saltzman poses another question: What is the role of classical composers in today’s world? As he notes, they certainly do not have any of the power, glory or influence they possessed in earlier centuries. But he might have added that if electrons are the crucial building blocks of our universe, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and the rest are in many ways the musical equivalents of those subatomic particles.

NOTE: The title of Saltzman’s show is from his popular blog,

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