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Italian and International Excellence in Cremona

Piano Street visited Cremona last weekend to meet with Italian and international pianists and piano brand representatives at the Piano Experience.

At the recent Cremona Mondomusica – an international music exhibition held every year at the end of September – about 300 exhibitors displayed thousands of fine, handcrafted musical instruments. The city of Cremona, situated in the region of Lombardy in northern Italy, is legendary for its distinguished history of violin making – it was the birthplace of the Amati, Stradivari and Guarneri families, whose 16th-, 17th- and 18th-century instruments still hold that special mystique, sell for many millions, and are played in the world’s greatest concert halls. The city still upholds its proud tradition – around almost every corner, you find a specialist violin maker’s shop.

US readers may be aware of Mondomusica New York, which is the largest American violin making trade show. Its European counterpart is held in a large exhibition hall on the edges of Cremona, and this year’s edition counted around 20 000 visitors. As you would expect, the fair presents an overwhelming array of violins, plus everything you need to make one – from wood to varnish – and, of course, all sorts of accessories like cases, shoulder rests, sheet music…

Piano Experience in Cremona

But Cremona Mondomusica isn’t all about violins. In fact, what you first encounter when entering the exhibition is a large hall devoted exclusively to pianos from some of the world’s leading brands. This part of the fair is called the “Piano Experience”, and that’s just what is – a quite overwhelming experience at that. Somebody described it rather fittingly as both a pianist’s heaven and a pianist’s hell: while it is wonderful to be able to spend the whole day trying out great quality pianos of all sizes, the effect of dozens of pianists playing bits and pieces of Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninov that are echoing around the large concrete hall is a less wonderful experience for a musician’s sensitive ears.

The exhibitors who are in this pianistic crossfire for three whole days seemed not to mind very much. Alexander Kerstan, production manager of Steingraeber Pianos, described it as a “typical piano exhibition – very noisy, everybody is playing – of course, you cannot really test the pianos properly, because it’s just not possible to hear yourself! But actually, I think this is not the point – for the visitors, it’s important to see all the different brands and meet the manufacturers, to get a feel for the instruments, talk about prices and so on.”

For a smaller brand like Steingraeber, with their main sales in Germany, Cremona is of course an important opportunity to get a foot into the Italian market. But even someone like Giovanni Doria from Steinway Italia would never miss the opportunity of going: “Some other important brands, Fazioli for example, are actually missing this year, but I simply cannot understand their politics – we have had a lot of new contacts, lots of public – a lot of pianists have tried our instruments. It’s very important to get a chance to meet people outside of the shops. And Cremona is such an interesting location with its great tradition of instrument making.”

Pietro De Maria and Roberto Prosseda at the Piano Experience in Cremona

Roberto Prosseda, pianist and artistic advisor to Cremona Mondomusica, has good hopes of bringing Fazioli back to the 2017 edition of Mondomusica Piano Experience. When he speaks about the organizer’s vision, it seems to fit very well with the exhibitors’ motives and experiences. The all-important objective from Prosseda’s point of view is to get people to meet, “exchanging experiences and points of view – making new friends and, of course, discovering new instruments, new ideas, new projects…! You never know what you will discover in Cremona, but for sure, you will discover a lot! That’s why the exhibition also includes many symposiums, round tables and presentations, inviting key persons in the fields of music organization and music production, in order to help the system to improve, and to bring about a vision of the future.”

So what does Prosseda’s engagement as artistic advisor to the exhibition include? “I am one of nine artistic advisors, and my main focus is on planning the concerts. This year I am responsible for a Deutsche Grammophone/Decca showcase series, with 15 artists who will present their recent CD:s. I’m also involved in the Cremona International Music Awards, whose recipients this year are the violinist Shlomo Mintz and the film maker Bruno Monsaingeon. And I organize round table talks, for example about financing classical music, to which we have invited some important sponsors of classical music, to hear about their thoughts and about what they expect from musicians. I think the most important thing if you want success, not only in the musical world but in general, is to understand the points of view of other people. And in order to understand others, you need to meet them! You need to understand what they think, what they expect, what they are looking for. Again – meeting one another is the best way to achieve this, and that is what Cremona is all about.”

Read more about some of the seminars and presentations:

Visit the Piano Experience website:


Liszt’s Love Story with Lisitsa

Decca artist Valentina Lisitsa has during recent years recorded albums with Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Schumann and Scriabin. She recorded Ives’ violin sonatas with Hilary Hahn (DG) and has explored contemporary territories with recordings of Philip Glass and Michael Nyman. Most recently, on August 26 this year, Lisitsa released a critically praised album with film music called Love Story (Decca) in which she looks back to the cinematic glory days of the big screen, performing the finest piano concerto music composed especially for film. A genre originally influenced by Rachmaninoffs popular piano concertos, these pieces are arresting original scores for piano and orchestra composed for movies of the 1940s and 1950s including Dangerous Moonlight, Stagefright, and The Apartment.

Another Love Story

As a present-day artist with an active YouTube presence, Lisitsa has also released a series of new videos featuring pieces from the core classical piano repertoire. In this video she is getting involved in a different type of love story, playing Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No. 1 S. 514 in which Faust gets seduced by Mephistopheles’ intoxicating violin playing on a wedding at the village inn.

Piano score to download and print:

Franz Liszt’s own program note:
“There is a wedding feast in progress in the village inn, with music, dancing, carousing. Mephistopheles and Faust pass by, and Mephistopheles induces Faust to enter and take part in the festivities. Mephistopheles snatches the fiddle from the hands of a lethargic fiddler and draws from it indescribably seductive and intoxicating strains. The amorous Faust whirls about with a full-blooded village beauty in a wild dance; they waltz in mad abandon out of the room, into the open, away into the woods. The sounds of the fiddle grow softer and softer, and the nightingale warbles his love-laden song.”


The Simultaneous Conversation

This summer, Daniel Barenboim launched a new YouTube channel. “I will talk about music – about pieces close to my heart, about pieces which I hope will interest you – and other subjects that preoccupy me, some social and some political, all subjects that have to do with the human being,” says Barenboim

In one of the first eposides, Daniel Barenboim describes music as different from human interaction through speech. If two people cross talk each other, then neither understands the other. Conversation only works if one talks and one listens and then switch roles. In music, the conversation isn’t verbal, so each participant’s voice is heard and understood at the same time.


Ditching the Intermission?

In a recent article at radiotimes.com, British pianist Stephen Hough addressed the issue of shrinking and ageing classical music audiences. Admitting that it’s a complicated issue, and acknowledging that many ideas have been floated – better education, more creative repertoire, lower pricing etc – he went on to focus on one of the more practical aspects of the subject: the intermission.

On tour, Hough has noticed that the default starting time for concerts can be very different, depending on which country you are in. But one common thing is the 20-minute intermission: “Who decided that a concert should last roughly two hours with a gap in the middle so we feel we’re getting our money’s worth?” During one of his recent performances, slightly shorter than average and without the usual loo break, Hough felt that the concert hall was charged with a special energy:

“When you play for an appreciative, concentrating audience, there can be a cumulative emotional effect in the hall as you all enter the powerful world of a composer’s mind and heart. An interval’s descent to chit-chat can bring everyone down to earth with a bump and then require the engines to be started up all over again.”

The suggestion that we should consider removing the intermission has sparked a lively discussion. Some have been slightly alarmed by the fact that a person like Hough would want classical concerts to be shorter. Others, like the “Cross-Eyed Pianist” Frances Wilson have pointed out that these ideas are hardly new – tradition is already changing, and there is a lot of experimenting going on, “from rush-hour concerts at 6.30pm to Wigmore Lates, 45-minute lunchtime concerts or lecture-recitals.”

Another thoughtful response came from blogger Andrew Eales (Pianodao), who noted an apparent contradiction in Hough’s article: “On the one hand he seems to rail against the established norm of the 7.30pm concert, while on the other hand praising the success of Proms concerts which follow that pattern to a tee.” Eales went on to suggest that real challenge “is not to offer a novel concert schedule, but to help generate a lasting enthusiasm for the music we love”.

What are your thoughts? Are concerts without intermission better, or could the break in the middle be more important than we think? Would more or less people find their way to concert halls if we ditched the intermission?

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Explosive Piano and Percussion Rendezvous in Beijing

The rare combination of Yuja Wang and famous drummer and multi-percussionist Martin Grubinger performed together at the Concert Hall of NCPA in Beijing on August 18th.

As an artist-in-residence Yuja Wang returned to her homeland to form a unique musical partnership with the famous Austrian percussionist. With her outstanding technical and musical projection Wang belongs to a select group of performers capable of generating pure stage electricity.

Nicknamed “The Wizard of Percussion”, Grubinger has managed to transform the idea of percussion concerts to include totally new musical experiences. His repertoire reveals a wide spectrum including chamber constellations and many composers such as Avner Dorman, Friedrich Cerha and Tan Dun has written works for him. His breathtaking percussion show involving freerunners and breakdancers, “Free My Way”, will go in its second year.

In this exceptional and particular formation, a special version of BartĂłk’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion was presented along with “One Study One Summary” by John Psathas.


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