16 February 2010

Isaac Stern and the town hall piano

In The ABC and music to country Australia I applauded the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s efforts in the 1950s and 1960s to bring world class music to the small towns of country Australia.

Sometimes the visits of these renowned musicians had lasting impacts on the cultural life of the town. An outstanding example of this was the 1954 visit of American violinist Isaac Stern; the story which follows was told to me at the time by my mother, who was on the local ABC committee which provided local facilitation of the visits on a voluntary basis.

Stern came to Armidale with his accompanist Alexander Zakin, to whom he was very close. They had worked together for years, and according to the sleeve notes on one of the vynil recordings I purchased back in the 1960s, when Stern was thinking in the early 1940s of accepting a seat in a symphony orchestra, because of a lack of solo engagements, it was Zakin who persuaded him to persist with his ambition of establishing himself as a soloist.

Be that as it may, when the two of them were taken to have a look at the town hall on the day of the performance, Stern instantly noticed that the town hall piano was an upright. He politely but firmly informed his hosts that Mr Zakin would not be playing that piano. He was told that that was all there was. Stern reiterated that Mr Zakin would not be playing that piano; they would need to find him a grand piano of appropriate quality. Someone recalled that the Teacher’s College had a grand piano, a telephone call was made, small towns being what they are the Teacher’s College readily agreed to lend the piano – but made it quite clear that this was never to happen again.

The piano was moved, the tuner came and prepared it, and the concert went ahead as planned. At the conclusion, after the encores and all the applause, Isaac Stern addressed the audience. He told the tale of the urgent quest to find a suitable piano for the occasion, said that the Teacher’s College had kindly agreed to lend its piano for the occasion, but could not go on doing that. He said that he was sure that all the music lovers in a town like Armidale would agree that the town hall needed to have its own grand piano. Accordingly, he had made a contribution to start a fund, people were waiting at the back of the hall to take any contributions people cared to make, and he hoped they would give generously. And they did.

And that is the story of how Armidale Town Hall came to have its own grand piano.

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