Concert pianists are, of necessity, a hardy breed. Through years of practice, they must develop nerves of steel, technical brilliance and sophisticated interpretive insights. And, what’s more, they must be adaptable, able to play the piano that’s available wherever they’re engaged to perform.
The pianos that dominate the high-end market in North America are Steinways. Mostly, these are crisp, bright instruments from Steinway’s New York factory, but the warmer Hamburg Steinways from Germany also have a following. However, that’s starting to change. Rare and exotic brands – Fazioli, Bechstein, Steingraeber, Shigeru and a few others – are challenging Steinway’s position. Even once-lowly Yamaha and Kawai have stepped up as contenders.
With so many pianos to choose from in Toronto, there’s no consensus on which one is best. But local pianists do have favourites – and asking several to comment on the city’s pianos opens up a lively discussion.
Best known for playing piano in the Gryphon Trio chamber ensemble (with violinist Annalee Patipatanakoon and cellist Roman Borys), he also teaches at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music.
What do you think of St. Andrews’s new Boesendorfer?
It’s a beautiful instrument. Some of the Boesendorfers I’ve played have a wonderful inherent brilliance – but you have to always watch out for the quality of sound.
In your opinion, what are the best pianos in Toronto?
My feelings about that have a lot to do with my familiarity with certain instruments. So I’d pick the piano at the U of T’s Walter Hall, and the one at the Jane Mallett Theatre – which I selected for the hall when they were looking for a piano. They’re both Steinways. When I play those pianos, it’s the same feeling I get when I meet an old friend: “Nice to see you – how are you doing?” Also, the Mississauga Living Arts Centre has a great Steinway, too.
What do you do when you’re on tour, and you’re stuck with a bad piano?
I’m fairly a low-maintenance pianist. I show up, and there’s the instrument, and I think, “Okay, we’re going to be together for a few hours, so let’s try to get along.” You learn to look for a piano’s strengths, and you try to hide the weaknesses.
A Toronto-based concert pianist, she’s played at Carnegie Hall, and with the orchestras of Toronto, Vancouver and Ottawa, among others. She also teaches at York University, and has a penchant for contemporary classical music.
You’ve played a lot of pianos in Toronto. What are your favourites?
The Steinway at Roy Thomson Hall is excellent, and the Arts and Letters Club has a nice old Steinway that was recently refurbished. But the piano I’m most comfortable with is Bertha, at the CBC’s Glenn Gould Studio.
Yes. They have two pianos at the Glenn Gould – and they’ve named them Bertha and Oliver. They’re both New York Steinways, but they’re quite different. Bertha is getting to be elderly, but she’s done me well. Oliver has a very quick action, and is a little shallower. But often my preference depends on what I’m playing.
What do you look for in a piano?
My own piano is very hard to control – my students call it “the beast.” But if I had a perfect piano, then I probably wouldn’t practice as much. But I have to really work at my piano to control the pianissimos. And when I suffer through the difficulties of my instrument, and I get to a concert hall where there’s a beautiful piano, it’s like driving a Rolls Royce after a Toyota.
As a teenager, Mr. DiNovi played in New York jazz clubs with the likes of Charlie Parker and Lester Young. He moved to Toronto in 1972, and has been a fixture on Canada’s jazz scene ever since.
As a jazz pianist, do you have different priorities than classical pianists?
Jazz is such a thing of the moment. You don’t concentrate on what’s on the written page – you get right into the feeling and mood of the music immediately. The best playing I’ve done is when I was least conscious of the instrument.
What are your favourites in Toronto?
My favourite piano for a long time was a seven-foot Yamaha at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre. It’s incredibly smooth – when you play something on it, you want to say, “Gee, did I just play that?” But there’s a Steinway at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church that may be the best piano I’ve ever played in my life. It has an incredible range of sound: you can play a perfect pianissimo on it, and a fortissimo that can be heard across the street.
And I expect you’ve also encountered some pretty bad pianos?
Once, when I was in Buddy Rich’s band, I had a piano that was so bad I tore all the hammers out at the end of the night.
You destroyed the piano?
That piano was already destroyed!
© Colin Eatock 2011