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The Riga Jurmala Festival – First Edition

The first edition of the Riga Jurmala Festival featured four weekends throughout July, August and September with an impressive lineup of world-famous pianists, including Rudolf Buchbinder, Yuja Wang, Seong-Jin Cho, Lukas Geniušas, Jan Lisiecki, Denis Kozhukhin, The Osokins and Lucas Debargue. Verbier Festival wizard Martin T:son Engstroem was headhunted to create the new prestigious Latvian music festival.

The festival took place at the Latvian National Opera, the Great Guild, and in the Dzintari Concert Hall in Jurmala, beautifully located close to the sea 20 minutes from Riga. The beach town functioned as a retreat for many renowned artists during the Soviet times. Legends such as Richter, Gilels, Oistrach and Kogan spent recreational time there with their families in the past.

Four international top orchestras added to the global presence: Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Mariss Jansons, the London Symphony Orchestra and Gianandrea Noseda, and the Russian National Orchestra and Mikhail Pletnev. Yuja Wang performed Rachmaninoff’s 3rd piano concerto together with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and Zubin Mehta.

Martin Engstroem’s Winning Philosophy

Knowing that top musicians are open to artistic challenges during the summer, Engstroem wants to create situations based on the possibility to allow a variety of programs with different and unexpected combinations of performers sharing the stage. For Engstroem it’s always important to seek something new and out of the ordinary –  he has noted that bringing these people together may very well result in them working together again elsewhere.

– And I remember András Schiff who, at the beginning, was very sceptical of this kind of showcase. And he played some four-hand repertoire with Yuja Wang and, on one piano, together with Mikhail Pletnev, said Mr. Engstroem in an interview with Gramophone.

Constantly looking for talent and exciting programming certainly mirrors Engstroem’s career in music which has embraced arts management, as A&R with Deutsche Grammophon and service on juries for numerous music competitions including the important International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. Born in the Swedish capital Stockholm, Engstroem feels a natural geographical and historical attachment to Baltic Latvia which also includes a personal experience having spent a honeymoon in Jurmala.

More videos:

Trailer weekend 3

About Sergei Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Piano Concerto

More about the festival: www.riga-jurmala.com


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David Klavins Exploring the Limits of Piano Construction

Many a pianist have heard about David Klavins, the German-Latvian piano maker. Back in 1987, he introduced the world’s largest upright piano; Model 370, which is two floors high. German musician Nils Frahm recorded an album on it, and the proceeds helped finance Klavins’ next project which was building an even bigger piano. The collaboration with Nils Frahm has since then continued and recently a completely different piano, the UNA CORDA model was created in an interaction between Frahm’s musical and sonic ideas and Klavins’ vast experiences as an instrument builder.

World’s largest piano unveiled this week!

The mighty Klavins Vertical Concert Grand brings out new sound possibilities by means of the piano in a magnified context and introduces a new dimension of dynamics and timbre to the world of pianos. It is therefor not impossible to call it an instrument entirely without compromise.

In May 2019 the latest Klavins Vertical Concert Grand, the M470i, was installed at its destination, the brand-new concert hall in the city of Ventspils, Latvia. The 470i Vertical Concert Grand piano, has strings that are 4.7 meters long. On display to the public for the first time on Friday August 2, the instrument has already created a buzz among piano enthusiasts.

On the other hand, he UNA CORDA faithfully captures the special sound signature of a custom-made contemporary piano, but with just one string per key. The instrument allows you to craft melodies for film or simply introducing fresh elements into electronic, pop, or jazz, promising a tone unlike anything audiences have ever heard before, bringing on a celestial all-over sound character.

Moreover, the UNA CORDA has an open body design, double-lowered and rib-less soundboard, a tone modulator and a stainless steel frame. It is also built without any chemicals or materials that endanger the environment.

Interview with David Klavins

Piano Street’s Patrick Jovell was very happy to have the chance to talk with David Klavins about his latest innovations.

Piano Street: You are an instrument builder and there are many brands on the market. Which philosophy have you nurtured during your years a caftsman?

David Klavins: My philosophy in piano building has been formed by the understanding that today’s pianos are essentially built by principles that were established more than 100 years ago and remain unchanged even today. The general idea of pianos are constrained by the possibilities and best understanding of those times. My approach from the onset was to rethink the piano design, to find out whether totally different solutions may be at hand that were not existing in the 19th century. Quite early in my professional career I came to the understanding that the shape of the grand piano, namely of its soundboard (which is a consequence of the grand pianos’ design) has acoustic disadvantages, as well as I reached the conclusion that the concert grand piano is too small in general, to live up to the typical sizes of concert halls of today. So I decided that I want to build pianos of my own design, strictly driven by the principle of “form follows function”.

PS: You started a collaboration with Nils Frahm already back when you built the world’s largest upright piano and it continued when you planned the creation of a Una Corda piano. Can you tell us from what base you formed your ideas together and how they developed during the process?

DK: Meeting Nils Frahm marked a significant turning point in my work. Because of his deep interest in original, new sounds, especially that of pianos, we found common ground quickly. While discussing the aspects of acoustic pianos that might be improved upon, one of these being its horrendous weight, I recalled an idea of mine that I had developed 20 years ago, to design an Una Corda piano. Nils instantly understood, as his own ideas resonated with this concept, and after we had thoroughly discussed the basic elements of the Una Corda, he commissioned me to build one. During the design- and building process we discussed step by step all kind of factors, including the visual design, and mainly thanks to his input it turned out being a piano that represents a minimalist ideal. Based on the success of the Una Corda piano, our cooperation intensified, and we took on a bigger project – building the M450 Vertical Concert Grand, which is now hosted at his studio at the Funkhaus Berlin.

PS: Can you explain how the interspersed tone modulator works in action?

DK: The tone modulator is designed the way that different type of materials can be attached to an aluminum rail by Velcro, which allows to easily switch from one material to another, or even equip the rail with a multitude of different materials for different tones / registers. In effect, these materials are placed between the piano hammers and the strings, which generates different colors of sound, depending on the characteristics of the modulation materials attached.

PS: In times of eco orientation and sustainability, the UNA CORDA is built with this in mind. Which manufacturing processes do you have to engage in in order to stay eco friendly?

DK: We had in mind to stay free of lacquer, chemical glues, and chemical paints, which was one major factor leading to the use of a stainless steel frame as the sole element to pick up the string tension and serve as the instrument’s body. Abandoning the idea of a piano case (furniture) in part also serves the eco-friendliness of the Una Corda piano, although the main reason for the “naked” design is not to suffocate the sound by putting it inside a wooden box. The soundboard of traditional pianos is typically coated by lacquer, which we substitute by natural beeswax, for protecting the soundboard wood against excessive humidity. In effect all materials used at the Una Corda piano, and during the building process, are purely organic.

PS: Some people have said that the joy and curse of the piano is the fact that we always want it to sound as other instruments. Modern instrument critics also think that the modern instrument is too homogenized and doesn’t reflect the ideas of classical and romantic composers. What will happen to instrument making in the future?

DK: My hope is to inspire other piano builders to follow suit and think of new variations of the acoustic piano, in particular regarding sound design. The fact that the Una Corda piano is received so well and highly appreciated especially by composers, is a strong indicator that users are increasingly asking for new sound characteristics of the piano. While most of the large piano manufacturing companies are, and most likely will remain, stuck to their traditional ways of piano building, I see a good chance that new, smaller companies arise, in light of the vast options that the modern technologies and materials of today are offering.

PS: We know that Mr. Frahm and his work is constantly looking for innovations. Do you have further project ideas coming up in the future?

DK: Yes, we indeed are working on developing further ideas of altering the piano sound, by design, by the materials used, and also by adding digital and electronic components to the analog acoustic concept of the piano, to offer a wider range of sound effects, for creative pianists and composers who appreciate innovation.

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Success, or Just a Sensation? Stuart Isacoff on Van Cliburn’s Moscow Win — 60 Years On

When Stuart Isacoff received an assignment to write a cover story on Van Cliburn’s comeback to the concert scene, this led to a friendship between the two that lasted until the pianist’s death.

Piano Street’s David Wärn has met the author of When the World Stopped to Listen: Van Cliburn’s Cold War Triumph and Its Aftermath, a personal and moving book presenting a sympathetic but honest account of the life of the legendary American pianist.

When Van Cliburn died on February 27 in 2013, the whole world was reminded of his sensational 1958 win at the inaugural Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow. Since then, two important biographies of Cliburn have been written. For the British historian Nigel Cliff, whose Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story was published just before Stuart Isacoff’s book, Cliburn’s death and the ensuing obituaries provided the first opportunity to hear the full story of the pianist’s life, a tale that he thinks resonates particularly strongly today: “while we contemplate talk of a new Cold War, it can be illuminating to recall that Russia and America have had a love-hate relationship for a long while.” Isacoff, on the other hand, had wanted to write Cliburn’s biography since the late 1980s — his basement was already full of material for the book, including taped interviews with Cliburn’s boyhood friends and relatives. Isacoff, with his stronger personal connection to the subject matter and his background as a pianist, unsurprisingly provides a more knowing and intimate portrait. He also a tells a more coherent tale, taking in the larger picture without losing focus on the main character and on the cultural, political and artistic significance of Cliburn’s life story. However, for those interested in as many details as possible about the political processes of the Cold War, Cliff’s book might be a good complement.

‘The Rise and Fall and Rise of Van Cliburn’

In 1989, Van Cliburn returned to the concert scene after an eleven-year break. Isacoff received an assignment from a magazine called Ovation to do a cover story on Cliburn and his comeback. The magazine no longer exists; in fact it went under with that cover story, and Isacoff was never paid. “Van said it probably went under because his picture was on the cover. I said no, it was because of my writing.”

The editor wanted a negative story. He showed Isacoff a photo of Cliburn and said ‘look at that smug smile on his face’. Isacoff didn’t think it looked smug at all, but soon realized that Cliburn was looked down on by some people. “Van was considered sort of phony. You take a New York intellectual snob looking at him, and… he was just perceived as being a country bumpkin. He was very flamboyant, and sentimental — not an urban personality.”

Isacoff started to do research, listening to Cliburn’s recordings. “I thought, this is so beautiful… I can’t write a negative story about this man. I didn’t have it in my heart to do that. So I ignored that part of it. I flew to Fort Worth, Texas, and met with him there; it was one of the years when they were having the competition. He didn’t like to give interviews, and wouldn’t let me take him somewhere to talk privately. Instead, he stood in the middle of this room with people running over and hugging him, exclaiming: Van, Van…! He was taking time to individually hug each person and look in their eyes. He said: go ahead, interview me while I’m doing this. So I spoke with him and took notes while he stood there hugging people.” Isacoff called his article The Rise and Fall and Rise of Van Cliburn. “Van was really happy with it. His mother said there was never any fall, so she didn’t like that part.”

An utterly Van-like evening

In september that year, Cliburn performed the Tchaikovsky concerto at the opening of the Meyerson Concert Hall in Dallas. On the basis of his article, Isacoff was invited to Cliburn’s private dinner party afterwards, and was entranced. He decided that he was going to write a book about the pianist. Not only did Cliburn play like an angel: the history of what he had done, his relations with Kruschev and the Soviet people — Isacoff found all this extremely fascinating.

He went to Cliburn’s boyhood town of Kilgore, Texas, to interview the pianist’s old neighbors and boyhood friends. Cliburn also came to do a recital, in order to raise money for the Harvey Lavan and Rildia Bee Cliburn Scholarship. In his book, Isacoff writes about that “beautiful, strange, and utterly Van-like evening”: Cliburn always had terrible stage fright, and it was much worse in front of neighbors, friends, and family. His hands were shaking so badly that after barely making it through the first piece he left the stage. After about twenty or thirty minutes, he reappeared and continued, suddenly cool and calm. Later in the evening, a weight seemed to have lifted from his shoulders. There was a little buffet in the gymnasium at Kilgore College, and Van was going around inviting people to go to the town church — this was around midnight — where he had convinced the organist to open up the church and give an organ recital in the middle of the night.

Stuart Isacoff

Isacoff had done several interviews with people in Kilgore and New York who knew Cliburn and went to school with him, when he found out that Cliburn really didn’t want him to write the book. “I had all these little tape cassettes, which I stored in my basement. I put it all away when I heard he didn’t want me to do it. Then, more recently, it seemed like it was time to take it all out again and start writing. All these years later, these tape cassettes still work, which amazed me.”

The American Sputnik

Van Cliburn was taught by his mother, Rildia Bee, herself an accomplished pianist who had studied with Arthur Friedheim, a pupil of Liszt. He began giving recitals at four and made his orchestral debut at twelve, in Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto with the Houston Symphony Orchestra. At the Juilliard School of Music in New York, he studied with Rosina Lhévinne, and after winning the prestigious Leventritt award he embarked on a series of debuts with major American orchestras. But with his win in Moscow, the tall, 23-year-old Texan, powerful in performance yet radiating a kind of childlike innocence, became not only a successful pianist, but a symbol for American greatness.

The American victory came as a stunning surprise. The Tchaikovsky Competition had been conceived by the Soviet regime as a showcase for Russian artistic supremacy, illustrating what the poet Mayakovsky had described as the opposition between “the materially poor but spiritually dynamic Soviet Union and the rich but spiritually poor United States.” Tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union had been steadily rising since the launch in 1957 of the first Sputnik space satellite. But while his Russian rivals at the competition were extremely well trained, their performances paled compared to Cliburn’s heartfelt spontaneity and his enormous, singing sound. There was something different about Van’s art; also, it was obvious that he had a deep, genuine love for Russian music. Observers in both the Soviet Union and the United States began to refer to Van Cliburn as ‘the American Sputnik.’

According to Isacoff, this was a role he never wished for. “He didn’t care about politics at all. He was made an icon in the West because of the Cold War, and because of the fact that the US was behind in the space race. When he won, he was presented in the media as the American who conquered the Soviets. But he never saw it that way. He loved people; he just wanted to… spread the love. That’s partly why the Soviet people fell so in love with him. In fact, his friends in New York used to laugh at him because he was overly sentimental, gushing all the time. Everything was love… they were too sophisticated for that. He was perceived as being not real, while in fact he had no pretenses at all. But the Soviets ate it up, and returned those warm feelings to him. He was treated so beautifully there that he wanted to go back over and over again.”

Van Cliburn celebrates with Emil Gilels

‘Oh no, I’m not a success, I’m just a sensation’

When Cliburn returned from the competition, several reporters flocked to New York’s Idlewild Airport to meet him. You must think you are a big success, one of them threw out. Oh no, I’m not a success, I’m just a sensation, answered the young prize winner. He was received by a ticker-tape parade in New York, and soon made a million-selling recording of the Tchaikovsky concerto, but after some time critical misgivings began to be voiced. Everyone had expected his qualities to mature and deepen, but this never seemed to happen. Cliburn found the treadmill of a concert career less and less bearable, and his words at the airport tragically rang more true as his career went on. “He was not psychologically prepared for what happened, and burned out very quickly. It was overwhelming. He was not used to having to perform all the time, and they always wanted the same pieces: Tchaikovsky 1st and Rachmaninoff 3rd. He became almost like a robot,” says Isacoff.

“People like Kirill Kondrashin, the conductor, said to him: Van, you have to take time off. You need to relax and study, to deepen your understanding and not wear yourself out. But Van said: Kirill, I can’t stop, because if I do people will forget me. A lot of that probably came from his mother, who became his road manager and kept him in line. She was very strict — not an easy person, and not particularly nice. But he was devoted to her; she lived almost to a hundred, and he took care of her. But the psychological impact of that was not good.”

Other types of problems also rose in Cliburn’s life. “He was getting injections for a while from a doctor, Max Jacobson, who was nicknamed Dr. Feelgood. He administered amphetamines and other medications to famous artists, movie stars and politicians, including John F Kennedy. And Van got hooked on that. When that was over, he found other obsessions, like astrology. He was afraid to go on stage unless the stars said it was a good day to do it. He was always nervous, and had terrible stage fright. Recording was very difficult, because he pictured that students from Juilliard would sit listening to his playing, finding mistakes. He had all of these psychological impairments that accompanied him, and it wore him out.”

Happy endings

Even though Isacoff had to abandon the book project, he had a lot of contact with Cliburn in the years that followed and kept up with what was going on. “Van was a very generous person. I remember a birthday party for Joseph Bloch — a close friend of mine who taught piano literature at the Juilliard School for fifty years. All the people that went to Juilliard were in his class, including Van. But Van got an F in piano literature, because he never got to class. He couldn’t wake up in the morning. He stayed up all night, and in the morning he would call Bloch’s wife and say: Mrs Bloch, would you please apologize to your husband for me, I just can’t get out of bed. Bloch was in his 90s when he passed away, and I think it was for the occasion of his 90th birthday party, at Steinway Hall in New York, that I got in touch with Van and said: your old teacher who gave you an F is having a birthday party. Van immediately called this florist that he used near Carnegie Hall and had flowers sent over.”

While the tale of Van Cliburn has some of the elements of tragedy, Isacoff points out that there are also a number of happy endings to it. Van Cliburn created a lasting musical legacy and inspired love and admiration in generations of Russians, propelling diplomatic efforts between the rival superpowers. The competition and festival that bears his name is one of the world’s most important piano events, inspiring countless young musicians. On a personal level, the friendships formed in 1958 were lasting: for example, among the people who made a special journey to see him when learning he was ill was Liu Shikun, his Chinese rival at the Tchaikovsky Competition. Finally, what really made Cliburn’s end a happy one was Tommy Smith, the pianist’s life partner during his last two decades. Being with Smith, writes Isacoff, Van Cliburn “was no longer haunted by the past.”

The book on Amazon:


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Alexandre Kantorow Wins Tchaikovsky Competition

The 16th International Tchaikovsky Competition concluded at night on June 27, naming the winners across its six categories. In the piano category the Gold Medal went to the French pianist Alexandre Kantorow.

Notably, Kantorow was the only finalist playing Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto and not the ever popular First. Hear his performance of this work and Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 in the Final Round at medici.tv

Alexandre Kantorow in the middle section of Fauré’s Nocturne no. 6, opus 63 from the second round of the competition:

The young French pianist recently released a much-praised album of Saint-Saëns piano concertos for the BIS label. BIS started to record with him already five years ago and surely must be very proud over this collaboration.

”Kantorow is the real deal – a fire-breathing virtuoso with a poetic charm…”
— Gramophone, June 2019

An Unexpected Special Prize Awarded

The jury led by Denis Matsuev awarded two Silver Medals and three Bronze medals (see full list of prize winners) but this year’s competition will also be remembered by a significant administrational blunder.
The Chinese pianist Tianxu An was awarded fourth place and a “Special Prize for courage and restraint” for his ability to handle the orchestra’s mix-up of Tchaikovsky First Concerto and the Rachmaninov Paganini Rhapsody. See his confusion in this short video clip.

The official explanation of the incident:
“Due to a gross error committed by an employee of the State Academic Symphony Orchestra “Evgeny Svetlanov” on June 25, 2019, before the Competition performance of An Tianxu, the musical scores by Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff for the orchestra and the conductor were arranged in a reverse order which differed from the pattern requested by the participant. In this connection, the performance began with a failure, because the participant was unable to immediately understand what had happened, and switched to another musical piece already during the performance. By a unanimous decision of the Jury, Denis Matsuev, the Jury Chair in the Piano category, officially invited An Tianxu to re-play his program. The participant officially refused.”

The Tchaikovsky Piano Competition is held every four years in Moscow, and is considered one of the more prestigious competitions in the world, alongside other events like the Van Cliburn Competition (Texas) the Leeds Competition, The Chopin Competition (Warsaw), The Queen Elisabeth Competition (Brussels) and the Arthur Rubinstein Competition (Tel-Aviv).

Recent winners of the Tchaikovsky competition included Daniil Trifonov (2011) and Dmitry Masleev (2015).

All performances of the 2019 competition are available at:


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What’s Inside Steinway’s Secret Vault?

To get inside Steinways’s new secret addition to their New York Factory, you must be invited. “The Vault” has over $3 million in exotic veneers, waiting for the right buyer at the right time.

Steinway’s highly secure selection room that’s reserved for only its top clientele, showcases some of the rarest and most grail-worthy pianos the company has ever built.

Currently, seven Steinway limited edition pianos are on view in The Vault. A John Lennon “Imagine” Model B Spirio sits in the left hand corner, with reproduced Lennon doodles and, of course, a signature – created in celebration of the late musician’s would-be 70th birthday.

Another standout among this exclusive crowd is the Lalique Heliconia Model A. Droplets of Lalique glass adorn the piano, styled as crystalline leaves upon swirling white branches.

Journey through imagination

The Vault’s crown jewel is the “Pictures at an Exhibition”. This unique concert grand piano unites Modest Mussorgsky’s immortal work for solo piano with classical painting of Russian history and folklore: landscape, the witch Baba Yaga’s clock hut, the Great Gate of Kiev, and many more.

Pianist and artist Paul Wyse started the design process in 2012 and the finished piano was revealed in May 2017. Hear him introduce the project:

Learn more about this piano on steinway.com.

Follow along into the Vault!

The guys at Gear Patrol recently visited Steinway’s factory and headquarters in Queens, NYC, to witness the crafting and manufacturing process first-hand. Follow them exploring the new hyper-exclusive Vault in this video:


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