Many years before the irreverent Mozart dazzled his lesser contemporary Salieri in the movie "Amadeus," an almost as irreverent professor of music at Occidental College began a yearly ritual in which he dazzles his students with similar virtuosity.
At the 19th Annual Classical Keyboard Improvisation and Live Electronic Music Concert Friday night, billed "Grayson19" for short, tuxedo-clad Richard Grayson once again filled 960-seat Thorne Hall on the Eagle Rock campus with students and friends who would try to test his impromptu musical ability.
"This is a chance for my students to get back at me," Grayson said, standing alone on stage.
The idea was for the students to propose difficult, if not impossible, musical concoctions combining light and contemporary tunes with the formidable styles of the classical repertory.
Grayson, jotting down the requests on a note pad, would then march to the black Yamaha piano on stage, flip up his tails, sit down, stiffen his chin pompously and play, for example, Henry Mancini's "Baby Elephant Walk" in the style of a Chopin nocturne.
Even before he played a note, though, Grayson made it clear with a bit of comic repartee that anyone who expected to deflate him was going to have to be quick of wit.
From a flutter of raised hands, Grayson called on a young woman to make the first request. She cited "I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby," as the tune, but before she could specify the style, Grayson cut in.
"Well, I'll see you after this concert tonight," he said, a little-boy grin breaking out above his neatly trimmed, graying mustache. "Thank you for leaving the style open."
The virtuoso also had a clever technique for cheating. Rather than take a request and play it immediately, he would write down several and then make minor alterations for dramatic effect.
The first set of requests, for example, included the "Hora," popularly known as "Hava Nagila," in the style of Robert Schumann and the themes from "Bonanza" and the Dr Pepper advertising jingle in the style of the Baroque.
"Would you please enlighten me as to that particular commercial?" he asked impishly of the young man who wanted Dr Pepper.
That meant the student should sing.
"I drink Dr Pepper and I'm proud," he sang weakly and off key but valiantly enough to make the house break out in laughter and applause.
"Would you sing it once more, please, without so much expression, just a little more pitch?" the professor chastised.
The student sang it again.
He tapped out a naked melody on the piano, misstriking one or two notes.
"Is that it?" he asked. "That's what I heard. Well, you did pass that test."
Right off, Grayson ruled Schumann inappropriate for "Hava Nagila," with its un-Germanic augmented second, but declared "Bonanza" a bonanza. Only, he said he'd prefer to hear it as a Rossini overture, to open the concert properly. And that's what he played, full of tempestuous flourish.
If only to show he could, Grayson then gave in and played "Hava Nagila," augmented second and all, as one of Schumann's "Scenes From Childhood."
Through the night, requests came for "God Save the Queen" as a Viennese Waltz, "Zippity Doo-Dah" in the style of Bach, and "A Tisket, A Tasket" as a fugue.
Grayson performed each one, skillfully rendering a melody that somehow always seemed in harmony and yet, at the same time, in conflict with its surrounding ornamentation.
By tradition, the most demanding, or at least semantically complex, request came from music theory professor Alan Chapman.
"I would like to hear, a passacaglia. . . . "
"It's easy for you to say," Grayson said.
"A passacaglia in the style of Shostakovich using as an ostinato the first four measures of the allegro in D in the last movement of Brahms' First No. 1."
"Very strange request, Chapman, and not at all surprising," Grayson said.
It was his longest piece and his artistic peak for the evening.
He answered the applause with an offer: "A candy bar to anybody who can tell me what key I ended it in."
Only one student, near the end of the program, seemed to hold his own.
A young man in a white sweater asked Grayson to play "St. Thomas Way" in a Renaissance style. Grayson asked him to sing a few bars. The young man did a pretty good a cappella rendition of the tune in its original Sonny Rollins style.
With mock humility, Grayson conceded that that was too much for him.
For a finale, he did the theme from "Dragnet" in the style of Rachmaninoff.
After an intermission, Grayson returned with guest synthesist Clark Spangler to play three pieces in the style of contemporary computer music.
Grayson played the notes on the piano keyboard and the synthesist turned the notes into strange, bouncy reverberations.
"Animal, Vegetable, Minimal" was in the minimalist style of mindlessly repeated notes. Barney's Binary was loud and bumpy.
"Sample Simon" was a demonstration of digital sampling. Don't ask. It's harder to get into than Shostakovich.