From the Toronto Star:


What's our problem with the piano?

Keyboard virtuosi now focus careers on Europe

Dec. 2, 2006. 01:00 AM

LUCERNE, SWITZERLAND—Like many another North American city, Toronto used to play host to piano recitals almost the way a dog plays host to fleas. It was a time when the parlour upright sat where the television now stands and piano lessons numbered among life's near inevitabilities.

Lang Lang is too young to have remembered those ivoried days. So is Hélène Grimaud. But like the other keyboard virtuosi who participated in last week's annual Lucerne Piano Festival, both artists are aware of the piano's changed situation, which is one of the reasons why so many of their front-line colleagues are focusing more attention these days on their European than their North American careers.

Lang Lang recently acquired an apartment in Berlin, where Canada's Louie Lortie also resides. Ottawa's Angela Hewitt has made London her headquarters for years. And Lucerne has become home to one of the most controversial of émigré pianists from the former Soviet Union, Andrei Gavrilov.

Notwithstanding its lakeside, mountain-fringed beauty, Lucerne isn't exactly a metropolis. Even among Swiss cities it ranks only seventh in size. But for a solid week each November, it crowns the piano king, not just in the world-class concert hall of its Culture and Congress Centre (Russell Johnson of Artec, the man responsible for the acoustical renovation of Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall, designed its standard-setting acoustics) but in restaurants and bars across town, where 10 leading jazz pianists could be heard in their natural nocturnal environments.

The piano is actually the focus of one of three annual Lucerne festivals, the first of them an Easter Festival devoted primarily to sacred music and early music, the second a comprehensive Summer Festival attracting some of the world's greatest orchestras.

How does the piano merit such company? Michael Haefliger, brother of the noted pianist Andreas Haefliger, looked surprised when confronted by the question over coffee in his office one recent morning. "You can hear Brendel, Kissin and Lang Lang all over the world," the director of all three Lucerne Festivals responded, "but not in such a concentrated period of time, with the opportunity to make comparisons of their playing.

"And why shouldn't we celebrate their instrument? The piano is the most versatile of instruments. This is our ninth Piano Festival and we have a record attendance this year, more than 95 per cent."

So why is there a piano problem on the other side of the Atlantic? It isn't that the instrument has lost its role in the so-called New World. Conservatories, including the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, where I teach, are still graduating pianists at an alarming rate and the piano concerto remains a staple of symphonic programming.

"But there are so few recital series now," admitted Lang Lang, "that I usually have to ask the local symphony orchestra to sponsor me." (In Toronto, that honour will fall on Jan. 26 to Roy Thomson Hall.)

"I agree with Lang Lang," said Hélène Grimaud before her latest Lucerne appearance (she will appear with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra June 13 and 14 at Roy Thomson Hall). And we tend now to play only in big towns. We don't cultivate the public the way we used to in the past."

Many of Grimaud's favourite pianists are those of generations past, whose individuality flourished in their playing. "The culprit today is the recording industry," she says. "People listen for the wrong things. In a concert it has to feel as if the music is being written as you hear it. It has to be transcendent. It isn't just about hitting all the right notes."

Interestingly enough, the most rewarding of the week's recitals in Lucerne was given by the oldest pianist, 75-year-old Alfred Brendel, whose playing of Haydn, Mozart and Schubert may not have been note-perfect — though it came close — but reflected a profound musical understanding.

The Lucerne Festival also demonstrated why the recital format is anything but moribund in the hands of younger pianists with imagination. For his Saturday morning recital, the Russian pianist Konstantin Scherbakov chose to play all 12 pieces of Tchaikovsky's cycle The Seasons, paired with Franz Liszt's transcription of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

The Ninth, you will recall, incorporates not just a full orchestra but, in its final movement, four vocal soloists and a choir. The sheer number of notes to be represented by the 88 keys of Liszt's piano defies counting. Liszt himself, reputedly the greatest pianist of the 19th century, apparently could play those notes. So could Scherbakov.

Breathtaking virtuosity is clearly not dead, as Evgeny Kissin also demonstrated in his performance of a Fantasie on Themes from Bizet's Carmen, as did Lang Lang in his performance of the souped-up Vladimir Horowitz version of Liszt's Second Hungarian Rhapsody. Piano playing doesn't get much more spectacular than this.

But as Grimaud argues, for their less spectacular colleagues, sustaining a career has become more challenging in a culture accustomed to "discarding things to try something else.

"I was a slow starter and didn't play much for a long time. I spent time creating a wolf centre. But this was my choice and it may have been for the best. After 20 years in the industry I am still here. When your career starts with a bang, after 10 years what do you do?"

Like other observers, Grimaud feels the piano needs a nourishing environment. That is where events such as the Lucerne festival come in, putting a spotlight on the instrument and its leading interpreters.

But to Andrei Gavrilov, "Music and industry are words that do not go with each other. Making music is like having a conversation with God. It should be life-changing."

Hopelessly idealistic? Not to anyone who heard the wildly original way Gavrilov played Chopin Nocturnes. Recitals able to offer this kind of music making are surely not going to die.


A year or two ago I visited my sister in London and stayed for about 10 days. I browsed the local paper music section and to my surprise I found 17 piano recitals given by the famous and not-so-famous through various venue. I asked myself: What happened in America ??