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For the love of ivory and strings

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

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In the final The West Australian ECU Lecture for 2016, the man responsible for securing the donation of more than 130 historical pianos to WAAPA gives the audience a guided tour through the character of the sound of the piano as it developed through time. Register now.

Geoffrey Lancaster remembers the exact moment his old world ended and another began.

“I was an undergraduate music student in 1973 and just in passing, I saw in a shop window in Queens Street, Woollarha in Sydney, an old piano,” he says.

“As it turned out, it was a Broadwood Grand of 1837 that had just come out from Warwick Castle.

“I went in, having only had experience with the modern piano, but the antiques dealer had a passion for historical pianos, he had about 50 of them.

“Within a very short space of time, that dealer changed my musical life. I knew in my spirit that this is what I should devote my life to.”

Professor Lancaster has been as good as his word.

Forty years on, the composer and pianist is a leading expert on historically informed performance practice, the custodian of a “small” set of historical pianos of his own, and is preparing to take possession of one of the world’s great collections of antique pianos for the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts.

It is a particular coup for WAAPA, which is earning a name as home to some of the finest and rarest instruments in Australia.

Two years ago, it marked the arrival of a hand-crafted, Italian-made Fazioli, a grand piano donated thanks to the generosity of the McCusker Charitable Foundation.

This joined more than 40 high quality Yamaha pianos already in daily use by students and staff, and now more than 130 historically significant pianos have been generously gifted to WAAPA by collector Stewart Symonds.

The remarkable collection includes Australia’s first piano — a Frederick Beck square piano that arrived on the Sirius with the First Fleet.

“This is the first piano in Australia and the first piano upon which piano lessons were given, by the first piano teacher in Australia,” says Lancaster, who has written two volumes on the discovery of the First Fleet piano, tracing its provenance.

“There’s a whole cloud of cultural significance associated with this particular instrument.”

The Beck — so fragile that it needed to be flown to Perth rather than trucked across, lest its 18th century animal glue weaken during a desert crossing — has spent years waiting for its significance to be recognised.

Symonds was a long-time friend of antiques dealer William Bradshaw, a Sydney identity whose home Lancaster describes as a ‘musical paradise,’ with so many pianos that they spilled out onto verandas and filled up garages and sheds.

Among these was a Frederick Beck square piano, built between 1780 and 1786, which matches exactly the description of the sole piano to have arrived in Botany Bay with the first white settlers.

Bradshaw reported buying the piano from a home in Windsor, on the outskirts of Sydney, where it had sat unloved in a laundry of a family that had owned it since the 1830s.

Despite its unfortunate location, it was in surprisingly good condition. Lancaster says generations of children in the family had been warned not to damage it as it had “arrived on the First Fleet”.

Symonds purchased the piano in 1986, took it home and tucked it in a hallway beside an 1809 Joseph Kickman grand piano, another element in the incredible collection now donated to WAAPA.

In announcing the donation earlier this year, Symonds described the importance of preserving his collection and the musical history his 130 pianos represent.

"This is for future generations,” he said at the time. “People in 100, 500, maybe even 1000 years, will be able to come and rediscover in these instruments exactly what our early composers composed.

“I want to give it back to Australia rather than have it frittered off overseas. It doesn’t help anybody in storage.

“By giving these pianos to WAAPA, they will be there for all who come for hundreds of years.”

For Lancaster, the arrival of the pianos will not only see WAAPA become custodians of an irreplaceable collection but enable a new generation to learn the language of the historic pianos — even the skills of piano restoration.

Playing on such instruments is akin to travelling in time, he says, experiencing music as it was intended to be played by its original composers.

“When a virtuoso scholar musician gets his or her hands on one of these instruments and plays music written for the instrument, it is possible to have a very complete and transforming experience of a voice from the past,” he says.

“It acts as a mirror to our own values.”

Lancaster says the difference in playing a modern and historical piano is stark – both in the accent and inflection the older instrument gives to music and in the physical demands made on the pianist.

“On a modern piano you press the notes down 12mm, and at the bottom where the action is very heavy you press a weight down of 32 grams,” he says.

“On an earlier piano, say a late 18th century piano from Vienna, you have a weight of 5g and you press the key down not 12mm but two. It’s a very different physicality involved.”

Then there are the complex conventions of the time, known but often not recorded by composers and performers: rules as to what notes might be long, soft, loud or the cue to improvise.

“If you don’t know the conventions of the time you run the real risk of losing the meaning and compromising the expressivity of the music,” Lancaster says.

“It is a partnership between research into these conventions of performance and interpretation, coupled with an understanding of how to play these instruments physically.”

He believes preserving the pianos and helping students understand how to play them as the great musical masters did, can deepen their understanding of the universe.

“I believe that the works of the composers we regard as being great are worthy of preservation because they deal with the human experience,” Lancaster says.

“But high art is a language that needs to be learned if it is to be understood.

“And once the language is learned, the rewards are astonishing.”

What is it about the piano that inspires such love?

They are the size of small sofas, not easily stored. They demand care or their sinews stretch out of tune. They get covered with doilies and clutter and dust.

But anyone who has struggled with Chopsticks or mastered their Mozart knows: it is very hard to stop owning a piano.

Master piano technician Paul Tunzi, who has worked with WAAPA for more than three decades, admits he is a collector, “much to my wife’s horror”.

“I’ve got an antique grand, I’ve got a Bösendorfer Imperial, which is the world’s biggest piano, and I’ve got a couple of other dribs and drabs,” he says.

“I collect them like a dog refuge, from people who don’t want them any more.”

Tunzi, who will mark 40 years next year as a piano tuner, says pianos are ‘dangerously emotional items’.

“When we inherit pianos from our parents and grandparents, they bring cherished memories of good times and songs; the emotion of the one who has owned and played the piano,” he says.

The problem is that a piano is not designed to last as long as the emotional connection endures. Most have life spans less than 100 years — far shorter for concert pianos — and they cannot easily be coaxed back to life.

“All instruments can convey emotions but most can be put away in a cupboard, whereas the oldest piano I own was built in the 1850s. I don’t know anything about it but I’m sure if it could speak it would have a wonderful history,” he says.

“When you go to a client’s house, say she’s in her late 80s or 90s, and I come to tune the piano and the last time they heard it played was by their late husband who has passed away, the emotion I see then is when I see how cherished pianos are.

“You can’t avoid a piano in the room. You walk past it and there’s not only an empty keyboard but pictures of families on it, pictures of babies and christenings and people who went off to war and didn’t come back.

“A piano provides a central focus point to a family’s significant memories of history.”

WAAPA Professor Geoffrey Lancaster is another who has more pianos tucked away than he cares to admit.

“I have to loan out pianos to friends and say ‘I don’t have room for this one, can you look after it’ and they usually say yes,” he says.

But that doesn’t mean he can’t squeeze in just one more.

“I’m just about to take delivery of the greatest maker of modern copies of historical pianos and it is the copy of a piano I have hoped to have all my life,” Lancaster says.

“It is a copy by JA Stein and I’ve been a Stein man for years. There’s an effortless perfection.

“They are the kind of piano that Mozart loved but because he was a musician he could never afford. Really, not much has changed.”

Perth is developing a reputation as a home for pianos — both the finest and the finished. East of the city in York is a paddock where more than 35 pianos wheeze out their final days among weeds and rocks, known locally as the Piano Graveyard. Tunzi knows a Perth tuner who has his own mausoleum closer to town “with 30 upright pianos stacked up” in his yard in Byford.

With the arrival of 130 historic pianos at WAAPA and the growing number of world-class Faziolis in private and institutional ownership, Tunzi says Perth is beginning to make its mark internationally.

“Why is it that such a small populace of Perth has more Faziolis than anywhere else in Australia?” he says.

“How is it that Perth is becoming such a focal point of keyboard instruments?

“My answer is that part of it is luck. Part of it is that the likes of Geoffrey Lancaster invite this sort of collection. But also there is the joining of like minds, people who have embraced quality and who want to move forward in keyboard and also go backwards, celebrating the past as much as the future.”

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