Category Archives: Q&A

In Search of the Ideal Companion

A conversation with Spivey Hall’s Sam Dixon about the artistic choices behind their campaign to obtain a piano that will be the true soul-mate to their beloved “Clara.”

 
by Mark Gresham | 14 Mar 2017

Ever since Spivey Hall opened its doors in 1991, the 400-seat hall on the campus of Clayton State University has garnered increasing national and international fame for the high artistic quality of its presentations, its renowned guest artists, its superior acoustics, and its Albert Schweitzer Memorial Organ.

For years, the Hall’s pair of resident concert pianos were “Emilie” and “Walter” – both Steinways, named after Emilie Parmalee Spivey and Walter Boone Spivey, prominent citizens of Atlanta’s suburban “Southern Crescent” whose vision and major financial gift made Spivey Hall possible.

Sam Dixon and "Clara" - just after she arrived in 2012. (photo: M.G.)

Sam Dixon and “Clara” – just after she arrived in 2012. (photo: M.G.)

Then in February 2012, “Clara” arrived: a notable Hamburg Steinway of exceptional clarity and elegance. Now Spivey Hall has begin the process of seeking a companion piano for Clara, to be name “Robert” – with obvious allusion to the historical musical couple, pianist-composers Robert and Clara Schumann.

Composer and music journalist Mark Gresham sat down for an extended conversation earlier this year with Spivey Hall’s executive director, Sam Dixon, about the rationale behind finding and purchasing another new piano to serve as both a compatible and complementary instrument to their beloved Clara. The following Q&A is drawn from that conversation.

Mark Gresham: Spivey Hall launched its new “Clara Seeks Robert” piano campaign this past September, simultaneously with the solo recital by Inon Barnatan that opened the current season. That “Clara” made her debut in 2012 as a new piano, just five years ago, can you explain the rationale for buying yet another high-end concert grand as a “companion” instrument?

Sam Dixon: When pianists I engage to perform show up at Spivey Hall the first thing they want to do is rush to the stage and sit down at the pianos. They rely on us, the presenter, to supply them with a piano that will enable them to do the work that they’ve prepared very very diligently to do. They have a plan for every piece they have researched, rehearsed, and for every thought they’ve cultivated. They’ve spent a great deal of time polishing and perfecting how they want their interpretation of this work to be understood by the audience.

Not every venue has a choice of pianos, but we do and many do. Professional music organizations that are revered, not just by audiences but by artists, have a choice of pianos.

It’s long been my premise here that we need not just “a choice of pianos” whereby you know Piano A could be really quite good and then Piano B is not really in the running. Having a choice itself is not necessarily wonderful unless the choices are really attractive and serve the purposes of the music making that the pianists wish to embark upon. To have a choice per se is sort of nice but if the pianists always take the same piano then obviously there’s not really a valid or meaningful choice at work.

Gresham: Had that become the case at some point for Spivey Hall?

Spivey Hall, from the a side of the stage. (photo:spiveyhall.org)

Dixon: We found, before we even searched for Clara, when we had Emilie and Walter on stage, Emilie was by far the preferred piano for recitals by almost all pianists, whether they were solo pianists or collaborative pianists. That led me to believe that Walter is a wonderful instrument in his own way but he’s not being used for the purpose for which he was purchased, so we really needed a different combination of pianos at Spivey Hall. That led to the acquisition of Clara.

It was a very exciting event for us because it was the first major acquisition of a piano for Spivey Hall since 1998. Clara arrived in early 2012 and Leif Ove Andsnes seized on it and immediately played it the day after it arrived. That was the beginning of Clara’s life with us. It took about 18 months to find Clara, going to various places.

Clara is a beautiful instrument. She was chosen because her sound, the sound that the pianists want to produce, the repertoire they’re playing and the acoustical properties of Spivey Hall are all well-matched. However, not every pianist has the same technique or the same approach to playing, and there’s a gigantic range of repertoire that requires different types of color, texture, and different qualities of sound. It’s rare that one piano will have all of those capabilities within it.

Then there’s always the question of how does the artist, the pianist, try to extract those qualities from the piano if they are there? That’s one of the great mysteries of piano manufacturing. If you live in home and if you’re an amateur pianist you can tell some differences between pianos, but the professional, world-class pianists who show up at Spivey Hall, have an acute sensitivity to the most minute differences between pianos.

Gresham: But since her arrival, Clara has demonstrably been a highly desirable instrument for an artist to play, yes?

Dixon: Yes, Clara is a very high style, gorgeous instrument and we’ve heard her under the fingers of many pianists. When pianists arrive at Spivey Hall, they want to sit down at the piano. They immediately start playing passages of what they’re going to be performing in the recital program. You can tell what their preoccupations are. Can I get this incredibly nuanced, finely-voice chord to sound pianissimo? Can I execute this upward run with brilliance and have it just sing and burst into stars? Is there going to be a thunderous bass at this moment? Can there be tremendous contrast of character in the space of milliseconds?

If they have a choice they typically play both instruments using the same musical concerns on their mind at the moment. This rarely takes more than 10 minutes and then they’ve made a decision and then that is probably going to be the instrument that they will perform on for the recital. What goes on in those very few minutes is a very personal thing. One pianist whom we had many times here, who is familiar with all of our instruments, has used one piano in one circumstance and another piano in another circumstance. When I asked this pianist why, he would say, “I can do more on this instrument.” That’s sums it up in a nutshell: I can do more on this instrument.

We’re always wanting to enable them to do more and to give their most personal interpretation, their best possible performance. If possible we would love for the combination of the audience, the instrument, and the acoustics to actually inspire the artist to go somewhere that will be absolutely heaven. That can happen because we know it happens. It’s really the artist, the pianist, that makes the most critical difference. At the same time we want them to feel good about coming into the experience of performing here. That’s where having instruments that are slightly different in valuable ways makes the choice more interesting and more valuable to them.

Robert and Clara Schumann

Soul-mates, namesakes: Robert and Clara Schumann

Gresham: It seems like you are looking for a specific character, because you know the repertoire and artists that already work very well with Clara. What are you really looking for in terms of character for Robert?

Dixon: Robert is the name of our next piano, the partner piano to Clara. I love Clara. Clara is a magnificent acquisition. She has a gorgeous tone, tremendous evenness of touch. She responds very evenly. You don’t have to manage Clara when you’re playing her because she’s a quality instrument who will respond.

We found that she has changed a bit, as pianos do as they get played in. They settle in just like a house will settle in after it’s built. So Clara’s bass has opened up really significantly, which is great because of bass is something that can be controlled. If there’s a resource there that can be controlled, then that’s valuable. It’s almost impossible to make an ugly sound out of Clara and that’s a virtue, because the beauty of great acoustics, which we’re privileged to have, is that they make everything sound better. The source of the sound is what matters most, but if the source of the sound isn’t what the artist wants then the artist isn’t getting the performance that he or she wants.

I think it’s important to acknowledge as well that what the pianist hears sitting on stage in front of the piano is often different from what the audience hears. The pianist is trying to listen simultaneously to the sound that comes immediately out of the instrument and the sound that he or she is hearing coming back from the hall. The psychology and science of that are miracles to me, but they do happen and they happen every day.

In Robert we’re looking for a piano that has a somewhat darker bass and that has more of a growl to it sometimes and has a different sense of touch. Clara is weighted in a very particular way, and the production of tone that we so loved about Clara is in fact a result of this weighting. You can change a lot of things about pianos. You can’t change the sound board. You can change the way it strung if you put a new strings. You can change everything about the action. But when you find a certain combination that produces value you don’t want to fuss with it. It needs to be honored for what it is. The beauty of the tone in Clara which we so love for Mozart, Schubert, early Beethoven – that is where she’s she’s just sublime. She’s wonderful with Impressionist music, too, because of the ability to get beautiful soft colors and textures at every dynamic level. That’s something we very much want to honor and keep.

Say, for instance, Yefim Bronfman is coming to play three movements from Stravinsky’s Petrushka this season, which he is, or Alexander Gavrylyuk playing Etudes tableaux by Rachmaninoff. They are pieces that are, quite frankly, a little more masculine in character and have more bite to the sound. To what extent is it the piano that provides this and to what extent it is the artist’s technique and musicality providing this? That varies in every instance. What doesn’t change are the physical properties of the piano.

Spivey Hall

Spivey Hall, a view from the audience. (photo:spiveyhall.org)

We’re trying to buy, in Robert, a piano whose intrinsic valuable characteristics complement, but at the same time are contrasting, to those of Clara, so that when the moment comes when a pianist sits down and plays Clara for five minutes and plays Robert for five minutes the choice will be made by the pianist on the basis of the artistic benefits to the composer, to the pianist and to the audience.

I know that’s very lofty. It’s a little hard to explain that in just a few words, but that’s what we’re aiming for. This is an appeal to idealism, if one wants to have something so beautiful realized so fully in real-time. The piano is only one but a major component of that.

Gresham: I know there have occasionally been pianists, like Horowitz, who would carry their own piano on tour with them. That’s rare, of course, and a logistically difficult thing to do, but in the old days that might have been the best option where halls, say in small towns of the day, had no viable option in place that would be even remotely usable by an esteemed artist. But we’re not talking even remotely about that kind of situation with a high-end venue like Spivey Hall. That a piano is “resident” seems highly important here.

Dixon: Last season we had a visit from a piano that is owned by Dr. Michael Koch who is avid anglophile and also the chairman of the piano campaign. He went to Vienna and chose a Hamburg Steinway there, came back and has his beautiful piano at his home. Michael called him “Hans.” Hans is of the same generation as Clara so that they’re sort of cousins. Hans came to Spivey Hall to pay a visit to cousin Clara for a few months last season, our 25th anniversary season. Hans was chosen by several pianists because of what the pianist perceived to be a better fit between what Hans could offer and what the pianist was seeking from their repertoire in performance.

Once again, that underscored the need for a piano of contrasting qualities that are of value to the musical objectives we’re trying to achieve. This came across a couple of cases. Angela Hewitt preferred Hans. Angela is a marvelous pianist. She has a very different approach to articulation, to the production of tone. She has one of the most efficient energy saving techniques at the piano I have ever witnessed. It’s extraordinary how calculated but how expressive her technique is.

However, she plays the piano differently than, say, Grigory Sokolov does, to cite another vast contrast in the world of pianos and pianists. Her needs are different than the needs of Imogen Cooper; are different from the needs of Yfrim Bronfman; are different in ways than the needs of Paul Lewis; or of any number of pianists you can name.

Upcoming solo piano recitals for the remainder of this season at Spivey Hall:
  • March 19: Bertrand Chamayou
  • April 2: Louis Lortie
  • April 8: Fred Hersch
  • April 29: Yefim Bronfman

See Spivey Hall’s current calendar for more details and additional performances.

Spivey Hall’s complete 2017-’18 concert season may be downloaded as a PDF file here.

The real challenge there, though, is that a piano be voiced for its space. When Clara came to live permanently at Spivey Hall she was chosen and then voiced for the space. You don’t re-voice a piano the way you change your shoes or your tie. It’s essentially trying to change the basic character the instrument, within a very narrow range, to bring out the best quality sought in this instrument.

Michael Koch’s piano Hans is voiced for his home, it’s not voiced for Spivey Hall’s acoustics or the size of the hall. Therefore Hans, while incredibly valuable and a gorgeous instrument and chosen by pianists, it’s not the ideal solution because Hans should not be voiced to Spivey Hall, because Hans is owned by Michael Koch and he takes huge pleasure in playing his piano in his home, where he enjoys its gorgeous tone and touch.

Gresham: That brings us to the question of raising money in this new campaign. How’s it going?

Dixon: We have made a good start. You were at Inon Barnatan’s recital in September when we when we announced the “Clara seeks Robert” piano campaign. So far, we’re just over a third of the way to our goal of $225,000 for the search and acquisition of Robert. We only had one piano recital this fall but this winter and spring we have a series of piano recitals which will give us more opportunities to make our case to people about why Clara so desperately wants her soul-mate and what they can do to make this possible.

By later this season I fully expect that we will be at least halfway through our campaign. There’s no crushing need to rush out and buy a piano but we do need to raise the money before we can shop for piano. Different manufacturers have different policies about how you acquire a piano and what comes first, the selection or the money. And you have to get in line. Steinway never makes more pianos than it can sell, and new Steinway pianos never go down in price, ever. So one has to expect the bark of realities: Steinway is not required to sell a piano to anybody.

If we want to find the right contrast of character, touch and tone and all those wonderful things that are involved in the selection process, then we need to do some looking, and not be rushed, and probably do some traveling and use the wisdom, experience and recommendations of pianists who know the hall really well, and Ulrich Gerhart, our technician from Steinway London who also knows Spivey Hall and Clara extremely well, so that we come up with a good partnership.

Gresham: The right combination.

Dixon: Exactly. We’re the matchmakers. We can’t start dating until we have some cash in her pocket.  ■

Fractured Atlas LogoThis post was made possible in part by funds from Fractured Atlas. Donations supporting the Fractured Atlas “Mark Gresham” project may be made online by clicking the linked logo on the right. Fractured Atlas is a 501(c)(3) public charity; all donations are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law.

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