At 2:30 p.m. on a recent Tuesday afternoon, Victoire-Théodora Pruvost should have been practicing — wading through classical piano repertoire until her fingers and mind were sore.
Instead, she was staring at jars of jam at the Balsam Farm Stand.
“I was not expecting this at all,” she said. “I was basically kidnapped.”
Michael Lenahan was her captor — house manager and second-time Pianofest participant, initiating Pruvost into the music festival’s unconventional fold by taking her on a food run.
“I make sure dinner happens every day,” he explained, three weeks into his stay at festival headquarters in Bridgehampton. “We’ve made lamb loin chops, glazed salmon, taco night. We’ve got some braised short ribs in the future. I love cooking — it’s one of my passions — so it’s been fun being able to do that every day. It’s so based on community and friendship, because all 11 participants are with each other all day long, and there’s something so intimate and almost familial about the whole thing.”
He paused. “The memories you make at Pianofest stay with you for your whole life.”
The immersive, Bridgehampton-based piano school and summer-long concert series is unlike any other in the United States, founded three decades ago by Paul Schenly, head of the Cleveland Institute of Music piano department, who has seen nearly 500 pianists pass through his front door.
“It’s hard for me to believe that this is our 30th anniversary season,” he said. “When I started out, I was a bright young thing like my students. Now I’ve become a wise old owl. I’m not quite sure how it happened.”
It began in June of 1988, when Schenly fell in love with the sunsets and beaches along Three Mile Harbor. “I found music’s pull to be just as irresistible as nature’s, so I started Pianofest,” he said, “But, first, I had to find a house that was strong enough and large enough to hold several grand pianos.”
He did, and what started as six pianos on loan from the Cleveland Institute of Music has grown into 12 of the school’s own, spread throughout the original house — in every available bedroom, and even in the kitchen.
“I feel very nostalgic about cooking dinner, or lunch, or breakfast while somebody’s practicing Chopin études,” Lenahan said. “That experience, there’s nothing like it. And, likewise, also practicing while people are cutting vegetables on the piano.
“There was also one night where there’s this piece we play for eight hands — four pianists on one piano — and last year we got eight of us in, and we just played the same piece but on two different pianos,” he continued. “And it’s just this loud cacophony of sight-reading pianists,” he continued with a hurried excitement, nearly in one breath. “We barely fit next to two pianos, all eight of us, squished onto two pianos.”
He burst out laughing at the memory. “It’s stuff like that that can only happen at a place like Pianofest, because it’s just so rare that you have all these artists trapped in one house.”
One of the guiding philosophies of the festival — which is divided into a pair of four-week-long sessions, and will see 24 pianists this summer — is camaraderie over competition, which Pruvost said she approached with skepticism.
“At first I was a little bit dubious because I’ve done a lot of festivals,” she said. “Most of the time, being in a house with 11 strangers could be a personal hell. Actually, everyone is really nice. We all reached a level where we all know we have our own qualities, and it’s a place to really love them and learn from each other. It’s really nice because as pianists, we’re not really used to this. We’re kind of lone wolves.”
The solitary life of a pianist is what Schenly has addressed from the start, he said, by welcoming participants from all over the world, teenagers to doctoral students. This year, 11 countries are represented, he said.
“Even though they’re so diverse in character and age, they all serve the same muse. They share the same dreams, and that’s to make beautiful music and to try to share it with people,” he said. “I started out with just six students and a lot of high hopes, and now we have a loyal audience and supporters, and Pianofest is very well known now as a great destination for pianists to study.
“It’s turned out the way that I hoped.”
Finland-born pianist Markus Kaitila first heard about Pianofest through the festival circuit, as well as while studying at the Aaron Copland School of Music, CUNY Queens College.
“What Paul Schenly does is create this family atmosphere, where we cook together and clean together. It’s really like a household in that sense, very congenial and delightful,” he said. “We’ve been talking here with some supporters and my peers about what the future of Pianofest could be, or what developments could happen — because, of course, in classical music, you always have the stigma that it’s for an aging population.
“I think some interdisciplinary performing would be nice to see: inviting some visual artists or poetry or even some theatrical elements, to expand the expression and make it a little bit more accessible or energetic to younger crowds, as well,” he said.
In a classical piano climate that is “the best it’s ever been,” according to Lenahan, the Pianofest formula is working, Schenly said, and he is reluctant to change it.
“I’m not trying to get larger; I don’t want more students because I think if we lose the intimacy and we lose the house and use dormitories instead, we’ve ruined the Pianofest experience. There’s a talent for living as well as for playing the piano, and I like to think that part of their education,” he said. “When people are living in such quarters and literally seeing each other’s dirty laundry, there can be fights. I remember a time when one person wouldn’t talk to the rest of the pianists for days and we couldn’t figure out what happened. We thought maybe a close friend had died, and then it turned out somebody had used all their laundry detergent.
“Pianists lead solitary lives,” he continued. “We spend most of our lives practicing in a single room by ourselves. We don’t have an orchestra that we belong to. So this is a unique opportunity.”
Pruvost, who once begged her parents for piano lessons while growing up in France, recently graduated from the Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique et de Danse de Lyon, where she received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. The 22-year-old now sits at a crossroads, she said, and is using Pianofest to decompress and focus on the path before her.
“It’s a good place to question yourself, and try to really differentiate yourself from who you are depending on your school, your teacher, what you’ve learned, where you come from,” she said. “It’s going to sound very cheesy, but it’s a great opportunity to discover yourself really for who you are as an artist, as an independent person, as an adult.
“I think Pianofest is a really great place to grow because it’s very positive and everyone has something to offer,” she continued. “It gives you perspective of what you really want to become. That’s what I really hope to take from Pianofest — to know a little bit more where I’m going, and what kind of pianist and artist I want to be in this world.”
Many a Pianofest alum, including Deutsche Grammophon recording artist Sergei Babayan and Steinway Artists Anderson & Roe Piano Duo, have gone on to forge professional careers of their own, and have even started their own festivals — following in the footsteps of Schenly.
“I’ve been really touched by the kindness of Mr. Paul Schenly,” Pruvost said. “Of course, he’s strict with us and our playing, but it’s quite rare to see someone in this music world to still be so well intended and committed to his purpose of helping us. I think I’m very lucky to be here.”
With that, she rejoined her friends at the farmer’s market — where they would all become equally enthralled by jars of pickles.
The 30th season of Pianofest will continue throughout the summer at the Avram Theater, located at 239 Montauk Highway in Southampton and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, located at 18 James Lane in East Hampton. All concerts begin at 6 p.m. and will be followed by a reception to meet the artists. Tickets are $20 and free for students. All concerts are followed by receptions to meet the artists. For a full schedule of concerts, call (631) 329-9115 or visit pianofest.com.