I have had the most successful and interesting year of music making. With it obviously comes a fair share of pianos, each with their own stories to tell. We pianists form intimate relationships with the instruments. We do not take our pianos with us to different venues, and often have no idea what we are about to encounter. So we learn to get to know them very quickly and make the best of what we find.
Here follows a short slection of some of the pianos I have played this year in almost 90 concerts.
I had quite a few very special events at Erin Hall, a charming little hall in Rondebosch with oodles of atmosphere.The piano really battles to play pianissimo and any loud playing gets a little bit unsophisticated. It’s not a bad piano, more like a run-around town furniture van.
This is Jake. Jake the Peg, with the wooden leg. Jake lost a wheel along the way and the amazing Baxter Staff created a little peg-leg. The Baxter Theatre really should have an A-Grade instrument, but one can see why a sturdy “bakkie” that can do hard manual labour, would be more useful than a sexy little Italian number. Still, we had a lot of fun, from Jewish Klezmer to some solo work. Jake is like “Best Supporting Actor” in a movie. He’s not quite the star, but you couldn’t do it without him. See you next year, ol’ chap.
The Baxter Concert Hall is blessed with TWO fantastic Steinways, the UCT College of Music piano, and the older Baxter Concert Series piano. Taking the CT Tango Ensemble into the Concert Hall requires a top-notch A-Grade Piano, and I certainly got it on this evening. This piano has everything I require from an instrument: a growl in the bass, a singing register in the soprano and a sizeable array of bells at the top. Love it! How amazing to drive a Ferrari. This one has a few gears in reserve.
A beautiful piano in an exquisite venue. A piano the perfect match for the venue. At first earmarked for Diemersfontein, this piano has a set of Soprano Bells that thrills my heart. Perfect fot the chamber music programmes with Sarah Acres, it felt really easy to control balance, and it had extra punch to keep up with soprano Shirley Sutherland and trumpeter Mike Blake. This piano encourages me to make the most beautiful sound; she is a real lady. She wears her finest silks and satins in public and shiny jewels. But she is not superficial. Like Violetta, in Verdi’s “La Traviata”, her softer side takes time to locate, but once she lets you see her soul, you will fall a little – or a lot – in love.
I get to play at a lot of lovely winefarms, and at Avondale, I discovered this lovely old lady. This is Nettie, an 1820’s Broadwood. She is remarkably well preserved, like one of those grand aunts whose brain is still remarkably clear for her age, but the voice is a bit creaky, and the meat has shrunk on the bones, and her rings clatter against each other when she gesticulates as she tells delightful stories of times gone by. I studied with Nettie Immelman in her 80’s, a remarkable old lady who had survived knee and hip-replacements and could still give you a tonguewhipping of supersonic intensity if you perpetrated a flat-footed cadence. Yes, this piano is a rare find, a real lady, a piece of history.
Sadly the Nassau Center Petrov is no longer worth the rental-price of the venue. Wooden and un-nuanced, in all senses of the word, a once regal instrument is past its sell-by date. Perhaps an expensive overhaul would restore some of its former glory, but no-one seems willing to take up the cause of the venue or this instrument.
How lovely to return to the Darling VoorkamerFest with Soprano Louise Howlett. Evita se Perron is always an experience, the Old South Africa memorabilia a reminder of the country’s past, the multi-cultural performance line-up an indicator of its present, and the vibrant atmosphere and willingness to think out-the-box an indicator of its future. The piano is rather red, and we had no time to get to know each other or say goodbye properly. But I’m not ashamed of my one-night stand in Darling with a piano whose name I don’t quite remember.
Sometimes it’s a keyboard, not a piano. Here Louise Howlett and I are on the back of a truck in Darling at the closing community concert of the Darling VoorkamerFest. Fantastic end to a fantastic festival and we got our songs in before it started to rain!
Notice the Keyboard INSIDE the empty shell of the Piano and the music stand taped to the top. Yes. Deceit at work. The client wanted it to look like a real piano but didn’t want to hire a real piano, so they hired an empty piano box and placed a keyboard inside. Yes, horribly commercial and selling my soul, I know. But in the 21st Century a musician has to adapt or die. A Million rand Steinway would just be impractical for most gigs, they are hard to amplify, and they don’t transform into harps and strings or DX7 Electric piano at the touch of a button. Loyiso Bala, Arno Caarstens and Mango Groove’s Claire Johsnton didn’t complain, and were happy Midas was there. Once the power came on. Yes. As luck would have it, when we had an electric piano, we also had a powerfailure. But once the smoke-machine came back on, we were good to go…
The Yamaha at the Nuthouse Studios on which most of the CT Tango Ensemble’s 3rd CD “Tango Dreams” was recorded. The piano is covered to cut out any extra vibrations from the room and the microphones are pushed right inside the piano. This is not ideal for piano recording, as a piano is an accoustic machine that makes its sound relative to the space it is in. Yet, for recording an ensemble, this seems the most effective way to save space, time and money. It’s a lovely piano with a crisp and bright sound, and its soul is definitely male. Not one for long drawn out conversations and melancholic seduction talk, he’s pretty much a “Hi, I’m good to go” kinda guy.
In Houtbay I encountered a very strange little piano. A late 1800s piano, a JB Cramer and Sons of London is a “ship’s piano” built especially for the cramped confines of Victorian pleasure boats. The perfect thing for a little sea-bound entertainment in the good old pre-ipod days of the Empire.
International adventurer Captain Robert Scott (of the Antarctic ) was apparently a fan and always had one onboard for those times when a hearty, spirit lifting sing-along was just the ticket. James Joyce also briefly mentions a ship’s piano in his book The Dubliners…. which must be worth a few cool points.
Other than that these things are very rare and pretty much ignored these days. A ship’s piano is basically a tiny rudimentary upright piano with a five octave keyboard that folds upwards to save space. It has no bottom half and sits either on a low table or a stand with a small leather and chain contraption dangling from its bottom that loops around the foot for the sustain pedal. Because of its small frame size it struggles with low notes so the bass strings are very wide gauge and particularly flabby, resulting in a strange, almost atonal metallic sound in the lower reaches.
Let’s just say ol’ Scott was HARD WORK, but got the job done. My hands were finished the next day. The smaller size of the instrument simply meant you had to pound a lot harder to make any impact.
Uncle Willie’s Christmas Party at the Marsh Memorial homes. My PSO (Piano Shaped Object) has tractor wheels and my seat is a HayBale. Not quite a Ship’s Piano, but some version of it. Played outdoors and wheeled in on Tractor Wheels, this one is Woody (From Toy Story). He is never going to be a mainstream hero, but you love him nonetheless for his sense of humour and his guts and spirit. Woody hasn’t got the bells ‘n whistles that Buzz Lightyear has, but he has bravery and courage to match a giant.
Yes, I am actually booked to play at venues who then present me with an instrument like this. What can one do, but play around it? Too bad if your opening number was going to be a Nocturne in C# Minor.
I’ve worked quite a bit with Cape Town’s Symphony Choir this year, involved in preparations and performances of various works, from Orff’s Carmina Burana, Brahms German Requiem, to Groot Constantia Christmas Carols Under the Stars. The latter coincided with the death and funeral of Nelson Mandela, and of course the scandal of Mr. Jantjies, known as the ” Fake Interpreter” who was given the nickname Bompie. At the time I was having Twitter Battles with some conservative Far Rightwingers who were convinced that Mandela’s funeral would trigger a long-awaited Julius Malema- and/or Zuma-planned genocide of white people, called “Night of the Long Knives”. Here the piano – which I call Bompie – is covered in some delicious Jaffa-Cakes that helped me through the “Night of the Long Carols” – and the Twitterbattle into the early hours of the morning. So far, no long knives.
However: on a scale of 1 to 100, this Ottobach can only do 20 to 50. So, he reminds me of Bompie the Fake Interpreter. Initially you are upset because the piano has no more to offer. You spend a few rehearsals trying to bash it louder and louder to get some action out of it. And it will have none of it. Then you think it is being stubborn and you bash some more. And in the morning all you are left with is swollen hands. After a while you stop being angry and treat Bompie like a Special Needs child. If you need more, you play in octaves, or hold the pedal down for longer than you would on a normal piano, or you open the lid to let a few drops more decibels escape. But, like a slow boy at the back of the class, you stop ranting at him because of his inability to produce more. He’s a church hall piano, it’s not fair to expect him to understand the complexities of what you are trying to say. As for interpreting it to the audience? Have another Jaffa-cake….
Hmm, the old Fismer Steinway is a lovely aristocratic instrument with tonnes of personality and individuality. Yes, I photoshop the corners before I post it on my website or Facebook. It is a university instrument, so it has been bashed about a bit. But I love that 4X4 quality that helps you dig in when the going gets slippery, and it has a turbo-overdrive 5th gear that will lift the roof if you play from the shoulders. One of my favourite pianos ever. A dear old friend.
One of the new pianos at the Fismer. I don’t know, I think this whole virgin thing is overrated. Yes she was young and new, but she was rather bland, she didn’t have that many stories to tell me. She is ready to be taught a few tricks, but then, she’s from Stellenbosch. I wonder if her shyness will get in the way? Perhaps the right man will make her give the colours to the Russian repertoire, Chopin, Beethoven. But she needs to let her hair down a whole lot more before she’s ready for Jazz or Tango. I’d love to bump into her again when she’s a bit older.
But as inexperienced young ladies go, this Yamaha at YoungBlood Art Gallery is a very different kettle of fish. She might be “Barely Legal”, but she’s keen to try it all. A few hours in her company leaves her suitors dizzy and out of breath. She doesn’t get tired and when you’re with her, neither do you. A fresh white wine with a not-too-heavy bouquet or alcohol content. I definitely will be having another date with her. But I suspect she’s already pretty popular, I hope I still get to see her every now and then!
Hmm, the piano here was really NOTHING to write home about – hence not even a picture of it – but to perform underneath this incredible artwork at the Sasol Museum, was a wonderful experience. Hemel en Aarde with Louise Howlett. I suppose that is the reality of this career, you taste a bit of heaven and earth evrytime you play.
No, not a real piano. But would you put your R1 000 000 Bosendorfer in the garden? And I got to play in a fairy garden and I swear: there were fairies.
Recording my first solo Cd – almost complete – and performing with dear friends on this piano is pure joy. One of the top instruments in Cape Town, the Hugo Lamprechts Steinway is the real deal. The accoustics on stage can play tricks with you; the piano comes across as slightly underpowered from where you are sitting, but it sounds great in the hall. The red hearts were for the charity that does heart surgery for underprivileged children.
The Blüthner at Kelvin Grove is another old dear one needs to be gentle with. She likes to go out for the night, but nothing wild. A sedate sherry in a cool courtyard for her, rather than the sassiness of a Tango Club. She’s like an old labrador whose coat is still lovely, but whose bones creak a bit as she comes down the stairs, and she doesn’t appreciate being rushed. She can be sharp and sarcastic but rarely stays in a temper for long, she finds arguing too tedious to indulge and tends to look down on the youth who allow themselves, in public, to be uncouth. Chew with your mouth closed and mind your manners, greet her politely and take her hand without squeezing, and she wil reward you with a very pleasant evening out. You will feel asif you have visited Lord and Lady So-and-So and how grand it all was! If you don’t make too much noise and listen carefully, you might hear the OWLS in the garden, and you won’t be at sixes and NINES. (The ow defunct Nine’s Club used this piano for all their functions)
Some unexpected delight came from a Two-Singer/Two-Keyboard project with Ivan Meredith, Janine Piack and Ifriky Tadadjeu. Our “TwoPianoTango” garnered more than 6000 views on Fandalism and the project blossomed into a recording of the CD “For the Love of Music”, scheduled for release in 2014. The combination gives us the bite and power of two pianos, plus the added orchestral effects enabled by the electronic keyboards.
Yes, I KNOW it’s another KEYBOARD and not a REAL PIANO. But you can either sit there and roll your eyes that it isn’t a ONE TONNE Bösendorfer, moan about the sun in your eyes, the wind in your face and the wildlife crawling up your leg, or make the most of it and look at that VIEW !
How lovely to play at “The Crypt Jazz Club” in Cape Town – certainly one of the most colourfully eccentric venues in the Mother City. “Lady Sings the Blues” with Louis Howlett and Graham Strickland made return appearances. A “Steinweg”, the white piano did not charm me. Nothing to do with it’s make or colour. Some pianos interest one more than others. This one. Hmm. One warms to one’s date as the evening progresses, but I felt her mind was on other things.
I have been involved in a number of concerts and events at Bishops College and Preparatory School. It is incredible that a school in Cape Town has such a phenomenal stable of excellent instruments at its disposal. These boys are truly lucky to be working on concert-grade instruments. From the ABRSM High Achiever Concert to Wednesday Morning recitals, these pianos are a pleasure to play, well maintained and in great shape. How I wish other schools would follow their example and invest in a good music department.
So many dreams came true at this concert: A Lenten Meditation of deep and meaningful music, played in St. George’s Cathedral, one of the most loved and revered spiritual spaces in Cape Town. It was made possible by the then Dean of Music, David Orr. Sarah Acres and I had a wonderful experience performing in such an exquisite space. And to top it off, Ian Burgess-Simpson Pianos sponsored a Kawai especially for the event. It was PERFECT for the repertoire: Mellow cantabiles in the middle, bells in the Treble and a rich symphonic bass when required. A DREAM COME TRUE.
For the life of me I cannot remember the name of this piano, possibly a Bluthner? It did very well with my demands for a second Meditation programme with Cellist Sarah Acres. These concerts have become less concerts than Spiritual Experiences. I communicate with and through the piano, I listen intently and test my technique to the utmost. I am most proud of the music I have made this year, and this concert was one where the piano was perhaps not the easiest to read. But that makes the outcome so much sweeter.
Thank you for reading a bit of my journey through life! It is an honour and a blessing to be of service to the Universe in this special art.
Peace and love