Not only can he play a mean piano, but he can pick one, too. The Grammy-winning virtuoso Emanuel Ax, in town for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra's RBC Piano Extravaganza of concerts and ivory-keyed events, spoke to The Globe and Mail between rehearsals this week about piano sales, right notes and the new Steinway he helped pick out for the TSO.
I'm going to start you off with a trivia question. In what year did the sales of new pianos in the United States peak?
Gosh. I would think somewhere in the mid 1920s.
It was 1909, with more than 350,000 sold. In the past few years, sales have taken a sharp drop, down to between 30,000 and 40,000 annually. Are computers or electronic keyboards the cause, or do you think kids are just less interested in the piano?
Those numbers are from the United States, but you have to remember that if you take Asia into account, I think you'll probably find that piano sales have never been higher. There's a great level of interest in Western music, especially piano music, in China, [South] Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, you name it. There are incredible numbers of Asian students in the United States and in Canada and in Europe doing piano music.
So the reports of the piano's demise are exaggerated?
I think there are several issues. But first, in 1909, music was heard on extremely heavy 78 RPM records. They were unwieldy, and not so many people could afford them. So, the piano was the phonograph of the time. If you wanted to hear a symphony or any piece of music, one of the ways was to have a four-hand transcription of the piece. You put it on the piano and played through it. To actually go somewhere to hear Beethoven's Fifth Symphony was a very difficult thing.
And to hear it now – it has never been easier.
Right. We have iPhones and Spotify and YouTube. Also, another thing about declining piano sales is that pianos last. If you buy a piano in 1909, there's no reason you still can't have it. It's not something you have to replace every five years.
That being said, concert pianos do need to be replaced periodically. What can you tell us about the New York Steinway grand you helped pick out for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra?
[TSO musical director] Peter Oundjian came down to New York, as did a couple of young pianists who have done some work with me: Shai Wosner and Orion Weiss, who is going to be part of the festival here in Toronto. We all collaborated and decided that of the five or six Steinway showed us, there was one that seemed to have the most attractive sound and best feel.
And now that piano makes its public debut at the TSO's RBC Piano Extravaganza, there are a lot of components, including free concerts. But what do you want to achieve with the festival as a whole?
That people will find some of it inspiring or fun or amusing – something that will engage their attention about the piano. And maybe make them want to play a little bit. It's not a difficult instrument to play, you know. You walk up to it, put your hands on it and you're playing the piano, in effect.
As Thelonious Monk said, 'The piano ain't got no wrong notes.'
Exactly. That's a very good way to put it. It's a very friendly instrument. It's very approachable. I also happen to think it's a very nice piece of furniture.