One house, four weeks, 11 pianos, 12 musicians. The result is a limitless level of talent, energy and camaraderie.
Welcome to Pianofest in the Hamptons, where, from June to August each year, two groups of a dozen piano students from conservatories all over the world spend a month eating, sleeping, practicing, performing, relaxing and collaborating side-by-side.
On a recent afternoon visit to the Pianofest house in East Hampton, things were fairly bustling as the newest crop of 12 students were settling into their routine, having arrived on the East End only a week earlier. Though the power was out, there was fresh watermelon to be found in the kitchen while the classical strains of Tchaikovsky performed by an unseen student drifted through the downstairs room. Meanwhile, other young pianists relaxed and chatted out front on the home’s large, wrap-around porch.
While the students live at homes scattered throughout East Hampton, each morning all 12 of them converge on the Pantigo Road house where they get down to the real business of why they’re here. That means spending four hours a day taking lessons from one of the visiting faculty members, or practicing the new pieces of music they will perform at one of four Pianofest concerts taking place during their stay here.
With 11 grand pianos scattered throughout the Pianofest home, most everyone can be accommodated fairly easily. There’s even a piano in the kitchen and some students say that’s where the most creative exchanges of energy take place.
“The piano in the kitchen is really good,” admitted Tian Tang, who is from China but now lives in Chicago where she is a student at Northwestern University.
“We have a very clever rotation,” explained Konstantin Soukhovetski, a native of Russia who came to Pianofest as a student in 2000, and since 2001 has served as an artist-in-residence for the program. “There are 11 grand pianos, but also two spinets in two smaller room. If everyone needs to practice at the same time, we can do it.
“But we also have the beach and the sun is out and people feel like we have to have a good work/life balance.”
The idea of students bonding, whether while performing or relaxing, is wholly intentional and an integral aspect of Pianofest, now in its 31st year. The program is the vision of its director, classical pianist Paul Schenly, who also heads up the piano department at the Cleveland Institute of Music.
“The philosophy behind Pianofest is that it is non-competitive,” Schenly explained as he socialized with the students on the porch of the practice house. “Usually, pianists spend their time preparing for competition. I decided to create something more idealistic.
“Here, you study with the best and are an inspiration to audiences.”
All the students taking part in Pianofest are currently in conservatory, and every one chosen for the program is a first-rate young pianist. While the age range of participants is from 20 to 30 years old, sometimes students still in their teens are invited to join the program, while others slightly older than 30 may make the cut.
This is the second Pianofest group of the summer and after just a week, it seems obvious that the 12 young pianists had developed a strong bond with one another despite their varied backgrounds.
Canadian pianist Tong Wang, a native of Alberta who now lives in Montreal, explained that while life at a conservatory is often a series of classes punctuated by meals eaten in large, impersonal cafeterias, Pianofest is structured so that even the most mundane tasks become a bonding experience.
“We become family by sharing every part of our lives together,” she said. “From the moment you wake up, you’re washing dishes together, getting groceries, planning meals and doing the cooking. It brings the family environment together.”
“There are fascinating personalities, great passions and interests,” Wang added. “It’s a diverse group. People have serious interests outside of music. We have serious conversations and silly conversations, both.”
“We practice, we make lunch, dinner, and do chores together,” Tang chimed in. “It’s more like we’re really good friends … We practice hard and party hard. It’s a nice group.”
It’s also a group whose members hail from all over the world. While piano is their common interest, it often isn’t their only interest. For example, Kevin Sun, who was born and raised in Sacramento, California, is currently studying to be a physician at Stanford University where he is engaged in research related to child psychiatry.
“As a physician, we all need a humanistic aspect to our practice and I love playing piano,” said Sun. “The biggest draw is the diversity. Finland, Italy, China, Germany, Russia—even though we’re all students, we have different passions for music. We all play different kinds of music … It’s not about our abilities and levels, but our unique take on music.”
In recent years, Alexey Pudinov, who is Russian by birth, studied music in the U.K. and now lives in Germany, has developed an interest in piano duets. He was happy to find that Pianofest was able to provide him with musical partners to engage his interest.
“It’s fantastic to find musicians to prepare with,” said Pudinov, who particularly enjoys playing Mozart’s sonatas written for small salon concerts. “It’s a great time to share the music together.”
“But you also play a lot of jazz,” said Soukhovetski, referencing Pudinov. “Any artistic expression, as long as it’s played beautifully, is fine. There are a variety of genres. Music is music and when it’s done right, it’s where our passions live.”
Schenly notes that part of the Pianofest bonding process is also about the wider East End community. After each concert, a reception is held so audience members can meet the performers. Many of the Pianofest participants are subsequently invited back to the area to perform in programs at Rogers Memorial Library or as part of the Rising Stars Piano Series at the Southampton Cultural Center.
“This season we’re expanding further,” said Soukhovetski, explaining that in each session, the 12 students perform in four concerts.
This year’s expansion includes two new concert venues for Pianofest. In addition to concerts at Avram Theater at Stony Brook Southampton, which has been a longtime venue for the program, new this year were concerts at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in East Hampton and the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center.
“The concerts are an hour and a half long, and we don’t know who’s playing prior to the night before,” Schenly said. “They are playing new music. We have a dress rehearsal on Sunday afternoon, we’ll design a concert based on a good program, but also giving everyone a chance to perform.”
“That also feeds into the non-competitiveness,” Soukhovetski added. “Nowhere else do you figure out what goes on stage tomorrow. But we’re ready to take a risk and if it’s good, it goes on.”
And if a casual afternoon spent listening to the music emanating from the Pianofest house is any barometer, it’s all good.
Upcoming Pianofest Concerts:
Thursday, August 8, 7 to 8:30 p.m.
Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center, Westhampton Beach
Monday, August 12, 5 to 6:30 p.m.
Avram Theater, Stony Brook Southampton
Admission to all Pianofest concerts is $20, (students 18 and under free). For more information about Pianofest in the Hamptons, visit pianofest.com.