NEW YORK -- The challenge facing composer Daniele Lombardi: Through music, transform the tragedy of Sept. 11 into hope.
"I wanted to create a sense of profound meditation on the meaning of life - and all of this in four minutes!" Lombardi said in his native Italian.
So it was with the world premiere of Lombardi's "Threnodia for 21 Pianos," dedicated to the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and the U.S. premiere of his "Sinfonia Nos. 1 and 2 for 21 Pianos," conducted by Antonio Ballista.
In a stunning performance Thursday night, 21 pianists sat at 21 pianos on the stage of the World Financial Center's Winter Garden, which overlooks ground zero, creating a mixture of deep, thunderous sounds and lighter, higher chords. At times, the performers stood and leaned over the instruments, plucking their strings.
Lombardi had told the pianists exactly what effect he was after, said performer Kerstin Costa.
"Of something rising into the air - that he wanted to evoke an image of dust, of things dissipating, ethereal," Costa said. "But at the same time I find there is a sense of urgency - all of us playing one key at one time very, very quickly - it creates a sense of tension."
The effect was unsettling at times, magical at others - but never easy.
"This is not entertainment music," Lombardi warned minutes before the concert started. "This is music made from sounds that have never been heard before, it must be listened to with patience."
Lombardi, 57, said he sought to create a completely new sound by taking the piano, a solo instrument, and multiplying it into an orchestra.
The 21-piano concert was the centerpiece of the weeklong "88 Keys: A Celebration of the Piano," which opened the 15th year of the World Financial Center's free, year-round arts series.
It also marked the culmination of a six-year quest by one of the concert's co-producers, Sujatri Reisinger, to hear 21 pianos perform in the Winter Garden.
Reisinger, who owns the piano company Klavierhouse, met Lombardi in 1997, one year after the composer finished writing the symphonies, which have since been performed in Berlin, Paris and Lombardi's hometown of Florence, among other cities.
Since their meeting, Reisinger has worked tirelessly to bring the concert to New York.
Over the last year, he convinced the Italian piano manufacturer Fazioli to help him round up the necessary 21 handcrafted Fazioli pianos, which they borrowed from private owners across the United States.
"I thought things looked difficult, because I thought where are we going to find all these pianos," said Fazioli's founder, Paolo Fazioli, who attended Thursday's concert. "I thought to myself, 'He's never going to make it."'
Hundreds of people, many with their eyes closed, sat through the hour-long performance, despite the background noise of people coming and going from the World Financial Center.
"I think it's fabulous, absolutely fabulous," said Victor Friedman, 70, whose piano teacher was one of the performers. "Not only the audio, but it's a visual treat with the 21 pianos."
Added Friedman: "They evoke storms, sunshine. They evoke nature in many ways."