Gull calls, leaves in the trees, waves on the sand – on windy days, Woodbine Beach has a natural trio.
And sometimes, if it’s bright out, James Levac adds his solar-powered piano to make it a quartet.
But how do you bring a piano to the beach?
“I’ve pushed it from Leslie and Gerrard, where I used to live, all the way here,” says Levac, pausing during a set outside D.D. Summerville Pool.
Another day, Levac had a friend with an electric scooter tow the piano down Balfour Street so he could play in Dentonia Park.
“The wheels were starting to shake and I said, ‘Let her rip!’ and he was going as fast as he could,” Levac said, laughing.
“It’s a pretty tough piano.”
It also gets pretty good mileage.
Since he assembled it this summer, Levac has played his solar piano to surprised passerby at different spots on the beach, the Fairmount Park farmer’s market, even by the big green bandshell at Gage Park in downtown Hamilton.
Levac says he dreamed about a solar piano before he actually made one by installing a solar panel in the lid of a 20-year-old electronic piano that feeds two 12-volt batteries and a piano synth module with built-in harmonics.
Besides playing outside, what Levac enjoys most are the surreal, Field of Dreams-type encounters people have when they turn a corner in a park or by the lake and hear what sounds like a real hammer-and-strings piano playing a piece like As Time Goes By.
“I think it makes people happy,” he said. “I think it could be possible that somebody who is a little bit depressed might see this and it will improve their mood.”
Growing up in Cornwall, Ontario, Levac played his first piano recital in Maxville Manor, a retirement home, at age five.
Today, after 20 years of composing, playing and teaching music for piano and fiddle, Levac has found a niche playing to local seniors’ homes: True Davidson Acres, Thompson House and The Britton House.
“I like that I get to do music from the jazz-y, swing-y era – they really seem to get it,” he said.
“Even though they’re seniors, the music is still very hip.”
Levac is also the music director at Faith Presbyterian Community Church, near Main Street and Danforth Avenue.
It’s a simple building, he says, and with few statues, candles or other décor inside it feels like both a church and a concert hall.
“The acoustics are amazing – the high wooden ceilings, the plaster walls, the raised staged, the hardwood – everything is really suited to acoustic music,” Levac said.
“I would love to hear a string quartet in there.”
At the church, Levac plays a fully restored grand piano made in 1899 by Mason & Risch, a Toronto company that started in 1871.
For years, Levac also donned period costume to play fiddle at Black Creek Pioneer Village, where to prepare for his role, he flipped through sheet music at the Toronto Reference Library to find 1860s polkas, gallops, quadrilles and schottisches – a type of Scottish dance.
“The music I would play there was not on any radio station,” he said.
But for all his love of tradition – Levac keeps some 600 pages of sheet music drawn by Bob Eadie, his former piano teacher and a graphic artist – his next piano project is totally of the future.
“I’d like to make a second one that’s nine feet long and made of carbon fibre,” he said.
The new piano would also move using built-in motors, he said, and have enough on-board power to charge a whole rock band: guitars, mics and all. It would let him play more contemporary music, giving his repertoire a span of some 200 years.
Already, a film crew from Italy’s state tourism company shot clips of Levac playing his first-generation solar piano on Woodbine Beach this summer.
“We’re going to be famous in Europe,” he said, laughing.