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Blind date – Boris Giltburg and the trials of a touring pianist.

April 17, 2015


Boris Giltburg

All recitalists on concert tours face the speed-dating issue of having to become intimate with a hall’s peculiar acoustics as quickly as possible. For pianists, there’s the extra demand of courting the character of an entirely new instrument to ensure that performer, instrument and music all click in good time for their one-night stand.

Boris Giltburg describes a pianist’s emotional roller-coaster in making such a brief encounter.

Every musician has a special connection with their instrument, yet for pianists there’s an extra dimension: whereas all others (excepting organists) play their own instruments onstage, with the piano—cumbersome and costly to transport—this is almost never the case. We practise at home, and then perform on instruments that belong to concert halls, and which, in most cases, we haven’t touched prior to setting foot in that hall.

The moment of first encounter is worth describing. You enter the hall, looking forward to (or full of trepidation before) acquainting oneself with a new and unknown piano. The instrument stands on the stage, you approach, remove your watch, empty pockets of wallet and phone, sit down, adjust the bench… All the while somebody from the hall stands nearby, expectant as well—while you may travel from one hall to another, and for you this is just one piano of many, for them it is the only piano that matters, and they care, sometimes very much so, about the way you react.

Fully aware of the importance of the moment, you finally play something: a chord, a passage, a few bars. At once the piano ceases to be a generic specimen of genus grand pianos, and becomes the most concrete, tangible, real thing there is. This is the piano you are going to play tonight, and your encounter has just begun.

Piano lore can be summarized in a few short sentences:

There are good and bad pianos—this is possibly the most basic fact in a pianist’s life. Both kinds are to be found in all sizes, from all manufacturers, at any price point. A concert grand costing over £100,000 can be bad.

Smaller can be better than larger, but between two good pianos, the sound of the larger will be richer—volume and projection also changing with size. A baby concert grand will struggle to fill a larger hall.

One can get used to any piano. Seriously. There are no exceptions to this, even when the instrument is terrible. The better the piano the less time is required and vice versa.

Spending time with a good piano is rewarding; there is always something else to discover in its tone. A bad piano functions in WYSIWYG mode, producing the same sound even after hours of practice.

To really get to know a piano requires a concert. By the end you will know the piano; comprehensively.

It is perhaps important to mention another thing. Each piano is unique. Manufacturing takes up to three years, involving hundreds of processes and adjustments, most of them done by hand, all affecting final tone. So, two pianos of the same model, made in the same year, will sound different even to an untrained ear, defying their outward sameness. Differences between pianos made in different years, of different models or by different companies will be even more apparent.

This uniqueness provides a challenge, both interesting and frustrating. The constant element of uncertainty adds to the stress of each concert; however, a good piano’s ability to influence our playing can (like a good conversation partner) offer new interpretive directions. Should we be flexible, not forcing our will upon the instrument, but rather remaining attentive to its tonal character and trying to connect with it in an organic way. The piano is capable of taking us to places far more distant and interesting than those foreseen or planned.

I see an advantage in this: each concert becomes a journey of discovery; everything remains fresh and new, and you are kept on the edge of your seat, alert and wide-awake, curious to find out how the Beethoven, the Ravel or the Rachmaninov will sound tonight. This is anti-routine.

From those first notes you know right away. There is always room for acclimatization, but unfortunately no number of hours of practice will change ‘don’t like’ to ‘like’, for we are completely at the mercy of the piano on stage. It is our main ally for that night, and those initial moments show us the character of our future brother-in-arms. A piano which feels as the natural continuation of one’s hand can help a pianist forget their worries and become engrossed in the music and in the process of playing. Conversely, a bad piano can heighten any feelings of insecurity, can treacherously ruin concentration (always at the most dangerous moment), and make even the best-prepared trip and fall. Musically, those first notes are a sign of things to come—will the piano’s sound give inspiration? Will it invite a profound performance full of poetry, or contrarily, will it thwart any attempts to make the keyboard sing, to transcend the notes and touch a listener’s soul?

Admittedly, pianos that make or break concerts are not ubiquitous, but the piano’s influence is very tangible. It would be grand if we were able to turn a ‘cooking pan of a piano’ (as one wryly calls unsalvageable instruments in Russian) into piano-masterpieces through sheer willpower and determination, but changing a piano’s tonal character is meticulous work for a skilled technician, taking hours if not days. Usually what stands on stage is all there is, hence why an initial ‘like’ is so gladdening, and ‘don’t like’ so unfortunate.

What is this ‘like’? My dream piano: a singing, translucent sound, soft, rich, varied, lacking harshness; every note is perfectly formed, rounded and bell-like. It has a very broad dynamic range between pianissimo and fortissimo. Bass, middle and top registers are uniform in colour; there are no weak or unclear areas; nor are there any overly bright or open ones. Mechanically an even keyboard (no keys heavier or lighter than those adjacent); a touch neither too heavy nor too light, allowing full control over sound. All of this combined and united—a whole larger than the sum of its parts; a piano with an intriguing character, which makes each interaction with it a true experience and invites you to explore entirely new areas and layers in the works you are playing.

I may have got carried away. But playing a performance on such a piano can be unforgettable.

One can infer the ‘don’t like’: a metallic or unclear sound, flat, unvaried, a narrow dynamic range, an uneven keyboard, lack of character etc.

You might well think that the demands are exaggerated, and how much of it will the audience hear anyway? True, the demands are high, but any artist or craftsman makes such demands of the tools and materials with which they work: the painter the brush, paints and canvas; the cook the knives and ingredients from which to prepare a meal. An artist, in whatever field, can obtain a fine result even when working with subpar materials and tools, but will achieve so much more when those are choice. Hence it is not surprising that most pianists tend to demand more rather than less from the instrument.

Speaking with audience members post-concert, I have found them to be very aware of the nature of the piano’s tone, as well as whether its volume carried and filled the hall. However, it seems that unless the piano is singularly good or bad, after a short while attention switches from instrument to interpretation. From then on it’s all in the performer’s hands.

After first impressions, practising begins, and with it a slow process of acclimation: the aural and tactile equivalent of eyes adjusting to darkness. Our ears require time to get used to the way the sound spreads in that hall, and our fingers need time to adjust to this specific keyboard. No conscious effort is required (except, perhaps, for a general unwillingness to give up); hours pass, and suddenly you notice the sound becomes fuller, deeper, that you have more control over hues, that the piano feels less and less as strange, uncharted territory. This spurs you to intensify efforts, which in turn leads to a deeper acquaintance with the instrument—a virtuous circle.

Finally the concert, and a clear and focused state of mind: this is real. Hands are lifted to the keyboard and… wait, is this the same piano? Nearly always a small (or a big) surprise awaits in those first notes. The presence of the audience has changed the hall’s acoustics imperceptibly (or unrecognisably), and we need a little time (or half the concert) to re-adapt. This is the customary explanation, but perhaps there is another element at work: the most intensive concentration during practice cannot compare with the concentration maintained in a concert. The silence is different too: that of an empty hall much weaker than the live, breathing silence of attentively listening people. I often feel that in this moment the connection to the outer world is severed, and we find ourselves in enclosed space and time, where nothing exists besides audience, piano, music and player, all united by the silence. Transported into a world of our own it’s no surprise the piano seems different.

Source: facebook.com/Giltburg

Driving our daily practice is our love for the composers and the musical worlds they’ve created. Added to this before a concert is our love for the listeners and our desire to share with them the feeling of wonder, nearly of awe, which stems from the magical process of creating this music anew. Finally, at the moment we commence playing, the piano is the centre of our existence. Imagine the silence just before the concert begins. The first notes emerge. There you shall find our love for the instrument itself, for the enormous richness of sonorities hidden within; richness only limited by our imagination, richness which we sometimes discover at this very moment, in the presence of listeners. And there, too, you shall find our love for the gentleness and the might which is in the piano, for the virtuoso brilliance and the beautiful singing tone that it can produce, for the feeling of keys beneath fingers, for its polyphony and multi-layeredness.

And we finish the concert in full knowledge of the piano’s secrets: no corner remains unlit under the intensive spotlight of a live performance. If it was a good piano we are left with warm feelings for a complete stranger merely hours before, with which we are now deeply and intimately acquainted. This piano shared with us the musical elevation (perhaps some blunders too) of the previous two hours. And if we are due to leave the following morning, heading to another town and another hall, in which there is also a different and unknown piano, that affection is tinged with sadness over the prompt farewell.

So, when you next hear me or any other pianist complain “there is a new piano to get used to every time”, don’t believe us, or, at least, take our words with a large grain of salt.

Now available:

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