By Annette Hinkle
More than three decades ago, classical pianist Paul Schenly, who helms the piano department at the Cleveland Institute of Music, founded Pianofest of the Hamptons, and each summer he invites talented young pianists from all over the world to come spend several weeks on the East End living, learning, practicing and performing alongside their peers.
From the beginning, Schenly’s mission has been to create a setting that allows young musicians the freedom and inspiration to grow in their art, free of the anxieties and rivalries that often define the competitive world of music.
“I’ve always stressed that it’s non-competitive — even if competition winners are here,” Schenly explained in a recent phone interview. “Here, it’s a supportive thing.”
In any given year, Pianofest participants range in age from their early teens to 30 or so and hail from a diverse collection of countries — in 2019, students came to the East End from Finland, Italy, China, Germany and Russia, to name a few.
“What we’ve decided to do is unlike previous summers,” Schenly explained. “I didn’t accept any applications this year. Instead, we have Pianofest performers drawn from distinguished alumni — and the alums I invited are all fully vaccinated.”
In addition, all of this year’s Pianofest participants live in the United States, an important consideration given the difficulties inherent in trying to plan for overseas travel months out and the ever-changing rules and regulations surrounding COVID-19.
“It would’ve been difficult to imagine exposing pianists from around the world to ourselves and audiences,” he said.
The decision to shift to an all-alumni model for this summer was one that Schenly said he began formulating back in January. At the time, live performances were not yet happening anywhere in this country and travel everywhere was a continually moving target.
“A lot of it was wait and see. I said to the musicians, ‘I have an idea, would you be willing to participate?’ Nobody was concertizing and I think everyone was on pins and needles, but as soon as I said this, they came on board,” Schenly recalled. “My idea was to have a sort of symposium, where they would stay a week and share ideas with each other, play for each other and perform with each other and for audiences.
“Since then, several of them got important engagements at important venues, so they’re going back and forth to fulfill other opportunities as well,” he added. “Everyone is excited. Some of these pianists have never met.”
Pianofest kicked off with its first concert at Stony Brook Southampton’s Avram Theater on Monday, August 9. Concerts continue at the theater every Monday in August at 5 p.m. In addition, Pianofest concerts will be held at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in East Hampton on August 18, and at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center on August 26.
When asked about the lineup of alumni performers, Schenly describes the participants as incredibly diverse.
“Some started their own music festivals, some head up music schools, and some are directors of festivals in Italy in Europe,” he said. “One started an interview series, another has a record company and most combine performing with teaching.”
It’s true that the musicians participating this year have a world of experience. Among them is pianist Michelle Cann, who made news for her recent performances with the Philadelphia Orchestra and The Cleveland Orchestra. Also returning to take part in Pianofest this year is alum Michael Brown, who was called “one of the leading figures in the current renaissance of performer-composers” by The New York Times, and pianist Zsolt Bognár, who hosts “Living the Classical Life” an online video series in which he shares conversations with musicians from around the world. Other participants include Fei-Fei, a winner of the Concert Artists Guild Competition and a top finalist at the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, Orion Weiss, who regularly appears at the Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival, and Awadagin Pratt who has performed at the White House on three separate occasions.
“I think the performances of the artists and the dedication they represent at this time is important,” Schenly said.
Pianofest has been a fixture on the East End for decades, and for Schenly, one of the revelations he’s experienced in creating this summer’s program is bearing witness to how many former young participants are now busy with families of their own.
“I’m surprised when I call some of them and they say, ‘Mr. Schenly, I have to drive the kids to school.’ It’s a shock because I think of them as kids. They do have families and some of their kids have become pianists. It’s a nice continuity and immortality to the teacher to have those students come back and perform the same pieces.”
Traditionally, in addition to giving weekly public concerts, Pianofest participants, who stay at private homes scattered around the area during their time here, gather daily at the rambling, historic Pianofest house on Pantigo Road in East Hampton to make music. The house is chock full of grand pianos, so musicians can spread out and work on their pieces individually — or next to one another on duets in rooms where the instruments are close by. In his invitation to the alumni, Schenly was sure to mix up the groups by seeking out some performers who took part in Pianofest during the earliest years, and others who were in the program much more recently.
“I predict some know each other, some don’t. There will be a lot of back and forth and a sense of renewal,” he said of their upcoming time on the East End. “Some of them have been back as faculty, and I think they all follow Pianofest on the internet and have stayed in touch with each other.”
In terms of returning to the Pianofest house itself, Schenly predicts some of the alumni will be surprised by changes made since their time there, including the addition of air conditioning.
“I also had a lot of rooms without doors between them so the students and I got together and made plugs of Styrofoam to create sound barriers for the doorways.”
As a teacher, when asked about how his relationship with the alumni has changed in the years since they were his students, Schenly responded, “I’m learning there’s no statute of limitations on teaching. Most are asking me to listen to them as they prepare new pieces and try out their repertoire for a kind of encouragement.”
It would seem that sometimes, returning to one’s youth is as simple as crossing the threshold of the past.
“I did hear from the crew last night when they came in the back door of the house, there was such a feeling of homecoming,” Schenly noted.
Pianofest in the Hamptons concerts are every Monday at 5 p.m. at Avram Theater at the Stony Brook Southampton campus, 239 Montauk Highway, Southampton, through August 30. The audience size is limited by CDC protocols. For tickets, visit pianofest.com. Additional concerts will be offered at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, 18 James Lane, East Hampton, on Wednesday, August 18, with performances at 2 p.m. and 5:30 p.m., and Thursday, August 26, at 7 p.m. at Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center, 76 Main Street.