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[374] The Piano Shop on the Left Bank – Thaddeus Carhart

” I didn’t know what the game was, but I sensed that this was not the time to ask a direct question. He had made it as clear as possible that he could not be clear, that an unguessable exchange had to be played out in this oblique and baffling way . . . For the next few weeks, whenever I had dealings in the quartier, I made a point of asking as offhandedly as possible if anyone had done business with the piano repair shop on our street. ” (1:9)

Paris is romantic and beautiful, almost like a dream to the world. Yet in this memoir, which Carhart reflects on his experience of re-entering the world of the piano as an adult, he reveals a Paris that is more than Champs-Élysées and the Louvre but no less seductive. Back in 1989, he relocated to Paris for a corporate communications job. He stumbled upon an unassuming store of which the front window had a strange array of piano repair tools in his quartier while walking his two young children to school. Deprived of a plausible reason, he has put off going inside the atelier until he could no longer stifle his curiosity—but only to be barred by the shop’s imperious owner, who would not sell a used piano to someone who hasn’t come recommended. Then, he met Luc, the piano master in the shop.

Gradually I absorbed his philosophy by listening to what he had to say about the various pianos that arrived and soon left again. Eventually it was a way of getting to know the man, perhaps the best way since our discussions, even when far-ranging, almost always had as their common point of departure and of return our shared interest in these instruments. Things moved slowly, but that was in keeping with the essential guardedness, even formality, of the initial stages of getting to know someone in France. (5:53)

Not only does Luc, who is actually in process of buying Desforges, finds the perfect piano for Carhart, he has become an indispensable guide to the history and art of piano. Most rewarding is a friendship forged that welcomes Carhart, le Americain de quartier, into the inner circle of Parisian community, which operates on a network of local and long-term relationships bound by trust and obligation.

I enjoyed the slow unfolding of a friendship where, beyond our conversations about the pianos in the shop, certain things were tacitly understood. Luc and I virtually never asked about each other’s personal lives, although details occasionally came out as we talked. This was understood as respect rather than lack of interest, a sometimes surprising notion for an American used to the rapid divulging of facts and the urgent expectation of intimacy in new relationships. The pace was different in the atelier and I learned to give things time. (8:84)

The Piano Shop on the Left Bank is part memoir and part cultural history. Intertwined with the story of a musical friendship are reflections on the mechanics of pianos, the instrument’s evolution, its dominant role social lubricant before the advent of diversions, and relationship between pianos and some of the greatest composers. Carhart’s sensuous writing, fused with his passion for music, truly captures the ambience of friendship, enthusiasm, music, and French humor that he has become part of. Once Carhart has an introduction from an existing client, he is trusted, and allowed into the hallowed inner sanctum of Luc’s atelier, a goldmine of gorgeous old pianos in every state of disassembly: Erards, Pleyels, Steinways, Bösendorfers. He begins to drop by regularly: Luc explains to him the arcane workings of the instrument, enthuses over beautiful new arrivals, mourns pianos that have seen their last working days. This book is also a hymn to a vanishing age of artisanship. This delightful book is an amateur work, both in that it is written out of love, and also in that it is content to stroke the lacquered surface of its subject without delving too deeply into it.

268 pp. Trade Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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Pianists Mannerism

A friend of mine showed me a very interesting and thought-provoking article on how histrionics undermine pianist from The New York Times. The piece comments on the the unnecessary body gestures that accomplishment piano performances. I’m not a critic or a practicing pianist, but Bernard Holland’s article reminds me of the encounter with Lang Lang at Davis Symphony Hall last year, who takes a very athletic approach to playing piano. Holland believes that young pianists nowadays maybe distrust their own ability to make music without a little theater to juice up the proceedings. Elaborate arm waving and heaven-bound gazes, as seen in Lang Lang’s solo, seem to have become part of the conservatory curriculum. Here is an excerpt of his funny tirade:

“I had to turn away. I could listen, but I couldn’t watch. Two performers, four glazed eyes and four waving arms were too much for my stomach…It’s another reason classical music is not reaching more young people: not because of how it sounds, but because of how it looks. Even worse, lugubrious gymnastics like these advertise the feelings of performers, not of Beethoven or Schumann. Music is asked to stand in line and waits its turn.”

The article has me seething because although what he points out is funny, the argument might not be convincing enough. I don’t think young people would be turned off by classical music just because a pianist makes too much physical movement like “heaven gaze.” The gesticulating might be partly for show, but one does not go to any of those concerts to hear the music played perfectly, it is about something more than that, a deeper connection and fuller entertainment. But maybe this is not why Mr. Holland goes to classical concerts, though it is why I go. I enjoy watching the pianists’ fingers pounding on the keys. Shutting the eyes at a live performance might have gone too far, which begs the question, why leave the house at all? Why not just pop a recording in?