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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 16, No. 10 July 2011

Better to be Polygamous

by Julie Beradino / July 1, 2011

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The relationship between a musician and their instrument is built on the intimate knowledge, habit and confidence they share. Artists like Louis Lortie will even go as far as bringing their piano on tour. Generally speaking though, it’s often better for a pianist to be polygamous! At least according to Julien Leblond, tuner-technician in charge of backstage at the Concours international de musique de Montréal, it is.

Each instrument, an organic entity, requires that the performer approach his style of play differently, that he acclimatize it to its personality. Some pianos are more inspiring than others, notably the splendid Hamburg Steinway that most CMIM contestants prefer. Other instruments are less stable and more difficult to handle, but give way to more colour and subtlety.

The quality of a piano is based on an innumerable list of criteria. Just like violins or wines, pianos age well, as long as they are scrupulously maintained and the air is kept humid enough to keep the wood from cracking. The longer strings and soundboards of prestige pianos improve the resonance; they offer more possibilities for string calibration, which creates a richer and more delicate sound. The quality of materials is obviously essential for all parts of the instrument.

There are as many piano manufacturers as piano schools, but Mr. Leblond highlights a growing tendency towards standardization; it appears that instruments and their keys are feeling the effects of globalization as well. Yamaha, for example, controls all the production stages of their products, all the way back to breeding the sheep that will provide the wool for the pads! Progress doesn’t stop. Steingraeber, who manufactured Liszt’s own instruments, proposed a piano with a soundboard made using carbon fibre for greater resistance.

Some well-known piano makers in Quebec, like Serge Harel and André Bolduc, are going against this evolution by installing hand-made parts in their instruments. Their fame also stems from the Beauce or Abitibi wood that they use to create the frame and soundboard. In this respect, an old instrument restored by an expert will likely be of higher quality than one fresh off the production line.

As Leblond reminds us, a piano tuner is the expert who imbues life and soul into the instrument - by calibrating it, piercing the hammers, extracting the richest possible harmonies. With all this involved, the piano tuner is a close collaborator of the performer and an essential ally.

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