The black upright piano before him was painted with Day of the Dead skulls, sitting under a palm tree, next to a trash can in the middle of a shopping center.
And as he played Bach’s Prelude No. 1, a nearby dog barked, crying children ran by and happier ones rode 25-cent kiddie rides that blared gravelly sound effects and music.
Others stopped to enjoy the strains of live piano lilting through Plaza Del Valle shopping center in Panorama City on Thursday as part of a large-scale art and music installation that launched simultaneously around Los Angeles.
“It redefines quadraphonic,” said McDonald, a music director at Church on the Way in Van Nuys.
“It’s making classical music accessible. This isn’t your grandfather’s orchestra.”
As part of the “Play Me, I’m Yours” project sponsored by the L.A. Chamber Orchestra, 30 pianists playing 30 uniquely decorated pianos launched into Bach’s Prelude No. 1 at 30 spots at noon around Los Angeles, including the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood, Union Station, Santa Monica Pier and City Hall.
“It kind of makes working relaxing,” said barber Alex Gerardo, 18, who was giving a buzz cut to a customer at Plaza Del Valle. “It makes me want to learn how to play.”
The eye-catching pianos were installed in high-traffic public areas to get passers-by to tickle the ivories in moments of spontaneous music and creativity.
“It’s wonderful what they’re doing,” said Mary Beth Haag, a singer who taught voice at Scripps College before retiring last year. “It brings music to everybody. Anybody can sit down and play, even if they don’t know how to play. It’s great.”
The pianos were decorated by community groups such as the Canoga Park Youth Arts Center and others, including muralist Kent Twitchell, graffiti artist Man One, and sight-impaired students at Braille Institute and Long Beach’s Arts & Services for the Disabled.
The pianos will be left in place for three weeks, and players are encouraged to upload pictures or videos of themselves using the instruments at www.streetpianosLA.com.
“This is a little different,” said Panorama City resident Aaron Alamello, who was doing some shopping and stopped because the sounds of classical music in the Latino neighborhood were so unusual. “We stop and we might like it. He’s sharing it with us, and that’s what matters.”
The project is the brainchild of British artist Luke Jerram, who has been on tour since 2008, installing more than 500 pianos emblazoned with the message “Play Me, I’m Yours” in about 22 cities worldwide.
San Juan, Puerto Rico, London and Salt Lake City will also become home to more public pianos later this year.
“This is by far the most ambitious presentation of the installation to date,” Jerram said. “I hope the public enjoys the project and takes advantage of the opportunity to perform, express themselves and go out and play.”
The pianos will be donated to local schools and community groups after the three-week period.
The performance, as well as the project itself, brought a bit of much-needed fine arts culture to the neighborhood, said Michelle Klein-Hass, a board member of the Panorama City Neighborhood Council.
“I’m just very glad to see cultural events happening here for once,” Klein-Hass said. “We’re kind of considered a backwater. Our people are as interested in culture as everyone else.”
Working his way through Preludes from Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” McDonald wrapped up his 20-minute performance to applause from bystanders just as raindrops began falling.
“I loved it,” said McDonald, 57. “I heard a dog bark at one point, and heard a little bit of a conversation. Al fresco, you know?”