Take Six took their breath away

November 19, 2015 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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Fraser Beath McEwing reports on a unique piano concert…six Steinways in recital.

Six Steinways

Six Steinways

At the opening ceremony of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic games, 84 American built Kimball grand pianos were assembled on the shelves of what looked like a giant open bookcase to play Rhapsody in Blue. The organisers knew that multiple grand piano performances have the effect of almost reckless grandeur on audiences, even though they are very difficult to organise.

That didn’t stop Theme & Variations Piano Services from setting out to stage a concert using six full-size Steinway Model D grand pianos to celebrate its 30 years in the piano business – which happened to coincide with the100 year anniversary of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. The company did have a logistical advantage in that it had six of these awesome instruments in its Willoughby showroom, set up in a line, lids up, ready to go.

Theme and Variations marketing manger, Andrew Rumsey, needed two more ingredients to make the concert happen: a team of top quality musicians and music scored for six pianos. He combed Sydney for accomplished pianists who wanted to take part in a unique event. The participating players finally comprised Clemens Leske, Timothy Young, John Luxton, Gabriella Pusner, Evgeny Ukhanov, James Huntingford, Joshua Creek, Reomi Mito, Olivia Urbaniak, Kenneth Tong and himself.

The program presented an increasing challenge. It began on one piano, with 13 year old Kenneth Tong playing Chopin’s Etude No 11; then two pianos, in which Rumsey and Huntingford sensitively performed Rachmaninov’s Vocalise from an existing score. But by the time Saint-Saens Danse Macabre had to be stretched over three pianos (one being played by duo pianists) the show was into unknown territory.

One way around the problem of there being so few scores for four, five and six pianos, was to invite four local composers each to write a piece for the occasion. This brought its own complications. In Los Angeles, all the pianos were playing the same notes in unison, but for the Theme & Variations concert each piano needed its own part. The aim was to provide a broad symphonic sound rather than raw, singular volume.

Jim Coyle, Fiona Loader, Fenn Idle, Ciaren Frame and Michael Dooley produced four pieces in dramatically contrasting styles. They balanced the contributions of each part so that richness of tone and clever invention never descended into eardrum abuse.

As well as some familiar music, the full-house audience was treated to what amounted to a world premiere of four pieces for multiple pianos. Arguably the most successful was the final offering: Theme & Variations: meaning of Life by Michael Dooley who introduced his music with great humour.

The company founders, Nyree and Ara Vartoukian, were congratulated and thanked for their unrelenting assistance, often unpaid, to pianists and piano owners during their 30 years in business.

Fraser Beath McEwing is an accomplished pianist and commentator on classical music performance and is a founding member of The theme & Variations Foundation Advisory Board which provides assistance to talented young Australian pianists. His professional background is in journalism, editing and publishing. He is also the author of three novels. and a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home.

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