The Magic Keys of Pianofest, 20 Years In

Beth Young
July 23, 2008

It was 10:30 on a recent Sunday morning and the traffic snarl outside could hardly be heard inside the Pianofest house on Pantigo Road in East Hampton, where a gaggle of young pianists was sitting down to practice at the seven Steinways they use to prepare for the next weekly concert and master class. As they coaxed music from the keys, they could only guess which one of them would be singled out to take the stage.

In the drawing room, Yohann Ripert, 22, a Juilliard student from France, was practicing a piece by the Spanish composer Isaac Albeniz for a possible performance on Monday, shyly talking about the honor of being able to learn from teachers who are famous in the piano world.

Zoltan Bognar, 25, and Igor Lovchinsky, 23, were cleaning in the kitchen next to the kitchen piano, as Gleb Ivanov, 25, played a few short pieces from memory. This piano is famous for having the best sound in the house, all agreed, in part because it responds well to the humidity in the kitchen.

Zahari Metchkov, who is playing the organ at Amagansett’s St. Thomas Episcopal Church for the summer, had just returned to the house to tell his fellow musicians that a cocker spaniel had decided to interfere with his morning work by stepping on all the organ pedals, sending a cacophony of strange sounds through the church.

Paul Schenly, a former concert pianist and head of the piano department at the Cleveland Institute of Music, founded Pianofest in the Hamptons in 1989. Both mentor and friend—known for his sly wit and nurturing nature—he was wandering around the house, his eyes brightening every time he heard the sound of a dedicated player at work.

Mr. Schenly fell in love with the natural beauty of the South Fork on a visit here in 1988. He decided to start a classical music festival here that would focus on advanced training for student musicians, and the next year showed up with six students from

Cleveland and a truck loaded with six pianos, hoping to generate interest, and an audience of supporters, among classical music cognoscenti looking for quality music in this seaside resort.

“We figured if we made good music, people would come,” he said of the festival’s inaugural year, adding with a laugh, “There were 12 people at the first concert, but we had enough cheese and crackers for 250 people.”

Word got out quickly though, and by the fifth concert there were 75 people in the audience.

“It seemed enough that you could really hear the applause,” Mr. Schenly said.

Pianofest is now in its 20th year, and the performances routinely draw large crowds. This year, 23 students are taking part in two four-week sessions, playing every Monday at the newly renovated Avram Theater at Stony Brook Southampton. Michael and Maria Avram, who are members of the Pianofest board, worked with the university administration to enable Pianofest to have a permanent home at the college, a major coup considering that one of the festival venues, the John Drew Theater of Guild Hall in East Hampton, is closed for renovations this summer.

The summer-long series culminates in a Grand Marathon at the college on August 9, in which each of the students will perform a piece that Mr. Schenly determines, days before, will best highlight the player’s skills.

Students, who are selected after sending audition DVDs of their performances to Mr. Schenly throughout the year, don’t have to pay for the honor of participating in the prestigious program, thanks to a dedicated cadre of donors who open up both their houses and pocketbooks to the students.

Each student is housed in a private home during the summer session, and every summer since the second year, Steinway has sent a new crop of pianos for use by the young musicians. Students frequently collaborate with other musical organizations, including the Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival, and often go on to prestigious performing and teaching careers after they leave the program. Several have returned to Southampton in the off-season to perform in the piano series at the Southampton Cultural Center organized by Liliane Questel.

Pianofest musicians also played one joint concert this summer with students of opera from Stony Brook’s main campus. The concert, titled “Gentlemen Prefer Brahms,” was performed at the newly renovated Avram Theater at Stony Brook Southampton.

“We look forward to more collaboration,” Mr. Schenly said of Pianofest’s relationship with the college. “The sight lines are unique. You can see from any row. They have two pianos and they sound terrific.”

“The idea was to create a small colony of pianists,” Mr. Schenly said, adding that a concert pianist’s life is often a lonely one, with musicians spending too much time alone in a room, staring down the 88 keys in front of them.

When students first begin the Pianofest experience, he said that they often display a mix of shyness and bravado that takes a bit of time to wear off.

“Everybody plays their own most favorite piece fast and loud, like birds in trees,” when they first arrive, said Mr. Schenly. “I have to calm them down.”

Mr. Bognar, who performed Beethoven’s Walstein Sonata at the most recent Monday’s concert on July 28,

is a student at the Cleveland Institute of Music.

He said that one of the greatest parts of the Pianofest experience is being in close quarters with the dynamic minds of musicians who often have degrees in completely different fields, including science and math. During a recent visit, Mr. Bognar’s brother characterized the Pantigo Road site as a “pianists’ frat house.”

Mr. Bognar went on to say that many of the people who host the students in their homes enjoy following the careers of the artists who come to play at Pianofest.

Speaking of Mr. Schenly’s style at the master classes, the student pianist said that “he can be incredibly detailed” in his on-stage criticisms.

“But it’s also geared to bringing the audience in. He’s very inside jokey,” he said, giving the example of a recent piece a student performed that was written by East End composer Victoria Bond. To introduce the piece, Mr. Schenly suggested that “Unlike James Bond, you will be stirred and not shaken.”

There are two more opportunities remaining to be stirred by the musicians of Pianofest this summer: at the final master class on the evening of August 4 at 5 p.m.; and at the Grand Marathon concert on August 9 at 7 p.m., both at the Avram Theater at Stony Brook Southampton. For more information, call 631-329-9115, or visit