The Pleshakov Piano Museum
By Karin Edmondson
The Broadwood Cabinet Upright Piano, ca. 1814
The 1866 Steinway Square Piano
The 1788 Longman & Broderip
The 1804 Clementi
Antique tuning tools of a Civil War era tuner’s tool “roll” made with Moroccan leather & lined with soft chamois skin.
Rock musicians are impassioned folk—no doubt about it. Tabloids and tell-all biographies and autobiographies brim with tales of lascivious conduct, ingestion of inordinate amounts of mood-altering chemicals, gratuitous spending of fortunes and other tidbits of louche déshabillé and positively Wildean behavior. Then in 1984, along came a movie entitled Amadeus directed by Milos Forman starring Tom Hulce as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a musical genius with human foibles, susceptible to hedonistic excesses, temptations and ill judgment. Suddenly, classical music ricocheted to a different sort of noblesse entirely! Words like romance and adventure were positioned next to such former stalwarts of proper elegance and moral goodness as Ludwig van Beethoven, Robert and Clara Schumann, and Richard Wagner. Contemporary folk forget that classical composers of yesteryear were the rock stars of their age and era. Perhaps the outfits were a bit different—even more outré by today’s standards (powdered wigs and de rigueur high heels for men)—and they visited haberdasheries rather than Dolce and Gabbana boutiques, but the consuming passion for music and artistic penchant for plunging into life’s exploits and sensations is very much the same.
“Sometimes, in order to have grand ideas and to realize them, one has to be a little bit insane,” says Vladimir Pleshakov—classical pianist, acclaimed international performer, virtuoso, humanitarian, romantic, Thinker of Big Ideas and Director of the Pleshakov Piano Museum in Hunter. “I told Peter Finn (the founder with his wife, Sarah, of the Catskill Mountain Foundation (map) which hosts the museum) that I would acquire 26 pianos of historic significance. Then I spent several sleepless nights wondering how I would accomplish this but now, we have 16 pianos of serious significance and another important one just recently acquired for us by Steve Greenstein, our curator.” The Pleshakov Piano Museum opened in Hunter in August of 2007 with a twofold purpose. First, they intend to attract otherwise classically-uninclined people with a hope of instilling a fondness, even a reverence for the piano and secondly, to be of substantial research merit to scholars and historians as well as collectors and players. Each one of the pianos or “romantic time travel pieces” as Vladimir refers to them, is more than simply antique. Each has unique historical significance within the world of the piano. For example, here is a piano that was built between 1822 and 1825 in Boston by Alphaeus Babcock, an American who patented three significant inventions for the piano that henceforth altered the production of pianos: metal frame construction, felt hammers (previously leather) and cross strings which allowed for a more compact piano. “This piano has influenced a century and a half of production.” The Babcock is the latest acquisition and will soon become part of the Pleshakov collection, which is valued somewhere in the area of $4 million. “I have this sense that my life has been charmed, there has been something guiding me. When things look hopeless something says: here you poor bloke, look this way.” The Pleshakov Piano Museum has just recently commenced application for a museum charter and is now raising funds for a substantial endowment. “Most museums start by assembling money and then the collections. Here, we are doing it backwards, putting the proverbial cart before the horse. It makes things more interesting.”
Literature describes the Pleshakov Piano Museum as containing living exhibits—Vladimir and his wife, Elena Winther, herself an internationally acclaimed and accomplished pianist. While “living exhibits” is a rather odd descriptive term, the premise is apt. Their lives both separately and together evoke something almost magisterial and reflect a grandeur and design slightly epic in scope, complexity and romantic tenets. At around the same young age—Vladimir at 4 in Shanghai and Elena at 2 in Mill Valley, California—each was given a child’s piano and each found musical inspiration via the radio. Vladimir learned to play commercials and jingles and even barroom songs from the Pushkin era, the Russian nineteenth century. (A later audition for his first piano teacher prompted the teacher to ask him: “Do you play any serious music?”). At age 6 they both received upright pianos. The defining moment for Elena was at age 16, attending a concert of Artur Rubinstein in San Francisco. She gave up her amateur attitude and her preference for sight-reading music books and commenced upon serious practice, attending school only part-time in order to devote the bulk of her day to hours of practice. After high school she made her debut as a solo pianist with the San Francisco Symphony with Arthur Fielder as the conductor. Vladimir undertook a similar journey, dedicating himself to uninterrupted practice from age 6 until age 21. He studied with three teachers: Vladimir Nicolas Kostevich, Boris Lazaroff and Alexander Sverjensky, all three of whom were taught by Alexander Siloti, the cousin and principal teacher of Rachmaninoff. “My training was rigorous, taught with rigorous intellectualism and passion.”
At age 18, Elena Winther met Vladimir Pleshakov for the first time, quite early one morning in San Francisco at a music store where she worked and practiced before store hours. Vladimir knocked. Elena answered. “There stood a tall, thin young man with a scarf and cap.” The two dated for some time and became close but eventually separated. They both married other people and Elena even relinquished the piano in order to raise her son. “I didn’t play for six years but I also wouldn’t listen to any music for six years because I didn’t want to be reminded.” Eventually, a violinist friend convinced her to reconsider and Elena—at age 27—began again, mainly as a chamber musician, sometimes a soloist. Then, after 25 years, Elena received a phone call from Vladimir, in town for a recital, to attend his concert. “I’d been reading about him all this time. After the concert, we met backstage and I began trembling all over. It was a premonition.” Shortly thereafter, Vladimir called again, this time with an invitation to join him in recital of a short program for two pianos for a benefit concert. They soon married and have now been together for 21 years.
Shortly after their marriage, they moved to Europe, where they toured performing together with duo pianos—a double expression of love, for each other and for the piano—in Russia, Ukraine, France, Netherlands, Belgium, England, Morocco, Japan, Canada and the United States. At home in Provence the couple produced some of their finest recordings to date. Vladimir recalls: “The record company would schedule a five-day session. We’d finish recording in one, maybe two days, and the remainder of the time was spent swimming, cooking wonderful meals and dining at local restaurants.” After ten years in France, the couple decided to return to the United States, looking for a home base on the East Coast in order “to be closer to Europe for performances and travel.” Rents in New York City were too expensive for the amount of space with pianos and armoires and two 40-foot containers of personal items. “Real estate agents thought we were joking when we called them with our requirements. Burt Fried at the Kinderhook Group was the only one who called us back.” With Burt’s help and the tip of a lawyer friend who “jogged down Warren Street one way and I jogged down the other way—I had a plane to catch,” the couple located an old bank building in Hudson and soon created the Pleshakov Music Center. Before long they were giving concerts and attracting area cognoscenti like Robert Manno, the conductor of the Windham Chamber Music Festival, who mentioned the couple to Peter Finn. It was with Peter Finn’s offer to host a living piano museum in Hunter that the foundations were laid for something a bit more grandiose than previously anticipated.
Two other men are deeply involved in the emergence and trajectory of the Pleshakov Piano Museum: Steve Greenstein, the museum’s curator and a man with a profound love and intimate knowledge of the piano (he owns Vintage Pianoworks) and William Carragan, one of the directors of the Museum and a former physics professor and longtime harpsichordist and music editor. “The Pleshakov Piano Museum is a living museum where the pianos are playable,” says Steve Greenstein. “Similar museums are closing because they can’t obtain enough space but this one is hosted by the Catskill Mountain Foundation (map) and the Doctorow Center for the Arts (map).” So far Steve has procured about 14 pianos, “all of them with mostly original parts. This is one of the largest collections of American and European pianos that have affected piano manufacturing internationally.” Steve also has a collection of 19th century antique piano tools, catalogues of the major manufacturers, ephemera, pre-industrial illustrations of manufacturers Steinway, Chickering and others and as well as his most recent find, an actual seven-foot long workbench from the Steinway piano factory circa 1860-70 which will be on display on the museum and also serve as his workbench for maintaining the museum’s pianos. Says William Carragan: “The accessibility of this museum is phenomenal when compared to say, the Juilliard library at Lincoln Center. It’s hard to get there and torture to park your car. Here, you pull up on Main Street, park in front of the museum and that’s it.”
Steve Greenstein, a native New Yorker, inherited his father’s musical gifts and at age 6 began playing his sister’s piano lessons by ear. Soon after, he was introduced to the care, tuning and repair of pianos by a family friend, a tuner at Steinway. Steve attended Cornell University as a pre-veterinary student in 1968 and was graduated from Brooklyn College with a Bachelor’s degree in nutritional science in 1974. Steve was more interested in the healing of pianos than of animals or people. He apprenticed in the trade, and worked for different repair shops and dealerships for the next six years, including a stint at the Sohmer piano factory where advance his experience as a tuner. In 1980 in Brooklyn he founded his own company, Vintage Pianoworks, which focused on restoring finely made American and European pianos. In 1985 Steve moved Vintage Pianoworks, along with a collection of 20 or more fine antique and period pianos, to the mid-Hudson Valley. In 1993, Steve became a Certified Tuner-Technician in the Piano Technicians Guild and in 1997, he hosted the first show of antique pianos in the mid-Hudson Valley including a Civil War Steinway at the Highland Antiques Center. He has served as Vice-President/Program Director for the Hudson-Adirondack Chapter of the Piano Technicians Guild for the past six years. 2002 was the auspicious year when he discovered Vladimir and Elena Pleshakov and invited them to host a Guild Chapter field trip in Hudson. The evening proved to be a roaring success and when Steve served as assistant chairman of the New York State and Ontario Regional Conference at the Nevele Hotel in September of 2003, he invited the Pleshakovs to present their “Musical Time Travel Machine” lecture/concert, which proved to be the highlight of the convention. “They don’t just perform, they take us back to another era. The show is not a concert. Vladimir tells jokes, he describes how people courted in the eras in which the music was created. He’s not just another concert pianist but an orator who can captivate and charm an audience with his interesting facts, jokes and radiating charisma.”
William Carragan owns an antique harpsichord made in 1539, “the oldest playable harpsichord in the world. There is an older one from 1521, but it is an empty shell.” This living harpsichord, restored recently by Walter and Berta Burr of Hoosick, New York, resides, on loan, at the Pleshakov Piano Museum, and was featured in a concert at Weisberg Hall at the Doctorow Center in September of 2007 with William playing and narrating the program. Having retired in 2001 from teaching relativity and quantum mechanics, William now dedicates his life to “being a serious musician.” Additionally, he edits nineteenth-century orchestral music, works for a major publishing house in Vienna, and publishes analytical writing on the same. William is also a distinguished scholar on the music of Anton Bruckner, with a substantial collection of over 2000 recordings of Bruckner’s music which he is planning on leaving to the Pleshakov Piano Museum. His knowledge of this repertory has caused a number of well-known conductors to call him in as a resident consultant on performance and recording projects. “Thirty years ago when I was teaching music history, I bought for the course a recording of Vladimir playing a sonata of Nicolas Medtner, a close friend of my composition professor at Haverford, and developed a great respect for his playing. Imagine my astonishment when he suddenly turned up in Hudson! I came to many concerts at the Pleshakov Music Center featuring Vladimir and Elena as well as other distinguished artists whom they brought to Hudson. Eventually we began collaborating on liturgical music and are now in the midst of an ambitious music program at St. Michael’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Second and Partition Streets) in Hudson. (Singers are welcome!) Vladimir writes new music nearly every week, and I edit and publish it and we all sing. Vladimir writes sensitive, interesting pieces that are elegant, elevated, and individual, though quite Slavic in character.” William Carragan will be performing with the Pleshakovs in a program of Bach at the Doctorow Center in May: “It will be Bach the way Bach played it on a harpsichord, and then Bach the way a number of famous people have transcribed it for piano.”
Some highlights of the Pleshakov Piano Museum collection as listed by Steve Greenstein include:
• The oldest piano in the collection, the 1788 Longman & Broderip, was made in London and is significant because it was experimental for this firm as most English squares had a ‘Bump Action’ which was similar to the feel of a Clavichord, the ancestor of the piano. This piano also had an adjustment for ‘escapement’ which made the instrument perform with much more sensitivity and ease of play. It essentially revolutionized the piano industry in England and much of Europe until 1821. This piano is on loan form Bjarne Dahl. Its keyboard has five octaves, F to F. The firm of Longman & Broderip went bankrupt in 1798 and was taken over by Muzio Clementi who had been living in England for some years after being recognized as a child prodigy and was sent there from Italy to further his studies.
• A jewel of the collection is an 1804 Clementi, one of the most original and well preserved Clementi square pianos in the world. It is interesting that Clementi took over Longman and Broderip and we have that continuity in our collection. Clementi was regarded in his era as the Father of the Pianoforte because not only was he a gifted concert pianist, but he was also a most successful composer, publisher, and instrument maker as well. Clementi, unlike Salieri who lost to Mozart in a competition, was considered to be a major virtuoso in Europe at the turn of the 18th century and his competition with Mozart was deemed a draw! The Clementi square is part of Steve Greenstein’s private collection. Steve explains that “these pianos have no metal structural support or harp or metal plate, which made them very fragile and in need of frequent tuning. Their tone is quite gentle and low.”
• The Broadwood Square from 1790 was donated by Dr. Kari Reiber of Cold Spring, NY. Broadwood was the appointed piano maker to the King of England. During this time there were a tremendous amount of Broadwoods exported into the colonies and the new United States, mostly into Boston. Steve Greenstein has in his collection of ephemera an 1810 Boston newspaper advertising the arrival of a small number of pianofortes having “been received by the ship Kingston, from London—mostly Broadwoods and a couple of Clementis.” The interesting fact to this piece of noteworthy ephemera is that the ad was placed by Alphaeus Babcock, who just went into business for himself in Boston and whose subsequent patents revolutionized the piano manufacturing industry worldwide. He later went to work for Jonas Chickering who dominated the American piano industry from 1823 until Steinway started a manufactory in 1853 in New York. The Pleshakov Piano Museum has both a Chickering piano and a Babcock piano.
• The Broadwood Cabinet Upright Piano circa 1814 has no metal harp or structural support and is quite rare as it has a very ornate case with inlaid marquetry in rosewood and satinwood and ornate brass inlays throughout. The piano is all original and even though awaiting restoration is quite a sight to behold. The idea for an upright started in the late 1700s when experiments commenced to turn large eight-foot fortepianos upright in order to save space in smaller dwellings. These were called upright grands. The designs had limitations and the cabinet upright evolved which was still large at six feet, and very well received as they were easier to service than the monstrous upright grands, as well as very pleasing to the eye because of their exotic cases. The one Greenstein owns is a rarity, in all original condition with few missing parts and heavily decorated with fancy veneers, moldings and brass overlays and inlays. Again we have not arrived chronologically at a piano with any metal reinforcement in it.
• Quite recently, Greenstein procured an Alpheus Babcock square pianoforte circa 1820-1824. This was the very same Babcock that placed the ad in the Boston paper in 1810 advertising the arrival of all these English imported pianos. Now he was building his own pianos—tremendously significant as he was one of the pioneer piano makers in the new United States. His patents revolutionized the way pianos were to be built throughout the world from that point in time forward. An interesting note about this piano is that in the right drawer (Federal style case) below the keyboard are a number of handmade tools by Babcock for tuning and servicing this instrument! There are also notes to the late Roland Loest who was involved with the Museum of the American Piano started by Kalmin Dietrich in New York City in the late '80s which has now has disbanded because of lack of a paid for residence or home. The Babcock in the Pleshakov Piano Museum collection is similar to one in the collection at Yale University—except, of course that this one will eventually play and be recorded.
• The Tischner Grand Fortepiano, built in 1826 for the royalty in Russia, is the “Crown Jewel” of the collection. This piano is very ornate and there are only three Tischners in the world that we know of and ours is the only one that can be played! It is a Russo-German version of a Broadwood fortepiano with an English action. As with the many Broadwoods, Erards and Pleyels of Europe, experimentation with iron support bars connected to the frame of the piano and metal hitch plates instead of hardwoods were being used as all the manufacturers were trying to produce greater volume with greater string tension and also greater tuning stability. This piano employs the use of these great long iron bars and metal hitch pin plate for strength and stability.
• The Lincoln Chickering piano is one almost identical to the one that Lincoln had in the White House when he was President. The continuity from Babcock to Chickering is evident as Babcock’s patent for the full cast iron harp made Chickering’s success. Babcock worked for Jonas Chickering after returning to Boston in 1837. In 1824 he received the Silver Medal at the exhibition of the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia and in 1825 as well when he received a special mention of a square with his patented cast-iron frame. The Lincoln Chickering, as we call, it is a rare and well preserved instrument in all original condition awaiting restoration; but still able to be appreciated for its beautiful case and metal harp.
• The 1866 Steinway Square, restored two years ago and was recorded at concert in the Red Barn in April 2006. Greenstein has restored quite a few of these, “but this one is by far the best example I’ve ever heard.” It has been restored with all its original parts and it has a brilliant treble, deep rich bass and very sustained tenor with the ethereal sound quality which most squares possess because the bottom of their soundboard is boxed in unlike the construction of the modern grand piano; so the sound reverberates about with a pleasing effect. In 1866, the important historical fact is that 90% of all pianos made in the U.S. were square grands and this one was the best Steinway ever manufactured having three strings for each treble note instead of two, implementing the newly patented agraffe system, overstringing the bass strings to get a bigger, deeper tone and also expanding the keyboard from 85 to a full 88 notes as in the most modern grands.
The 1867 Chickering Concert Grand won the 1867 World’s Fair exhibition in Paris. There were very few of these pianos built, as they were Chickering’s limited edition model built for exposure at the Paris exhibition. The one that was sent to Paris and ultimately won the gold medal was personally given to Franz Liszt as a gift by Jonas Chickering. It is quite ornate and large being 8'6" long, with a rosewood case with massively carved legs and serpentine mouldings. It is straight-strung from the bass up and will be restored as time permits. This also is quite a rare instrument to find in all-original condition. It has 88 keys and has a more modern style repitition action. Lizst owned two Chickering Grands and the 1867 medal winner is currently on display at the Lizst Museum in Budapest.
A third gentleman, Richard Warren Sanchez, is bequeathing a record collection of 30,000 rare fragile 78 records that are extremely hard to find, the culmination of a lifetime of collecting from age twelve to eighty-four. The collection is in the process of being transferred from Woodstock to the Pleshakov Piano Museum.
Most artists will say that the creative process is at once urgent and mysterious, that in the midst of it they are imbued with an Other, a Spirit, Something Greater which moves through them and is manifested in the final product. So, too, with Vladimir and Elena. There is a process by which they approach new pieces of music, and breathe life into a composition. William Carragan says, “Vladimir has a sense of mission. He has real musical inspiration, a sparkling sense of humor, impressive technical skill, and deep humanity. He considers the music’s widespread effect. His performances are highly sophisticated with quite modern logic, and yet the sound-quality of the music is redolent of the culture in which it was given birth. At the same time the classic elegance and polished virtuosity of Elena’s playing provides just the right complement. What is truly impressive is how as a team they can bring the elaborate pieces they have commissioned, for example a large-scale group by the Hudson Valley composer Robert Baksa, to vigorous life.” Vladimir and Elena insist on approaching a new piece of music with “respect and humility. We throw away anything preconceived, take the piece and make it a living organism. It is a lonely occupation. There is an element of finding truth and beauty disassociated from arrogance, ambition and ego. We must remain absolutely honest.”
Do Vladimir and Elena have favorite pieces? Elena prefers music from the 18th and 19th century and “her Mozart and Chopin are particularly good,” says Vladimir. “I am partial to Rachmaninoff and Beethoven.”
The Pleshakov Piano Museum is located on Main Street in Hunter. The collection is available for viewing by appointment. Admission is $10. Group and student rates are available. For more information, please visit www.catskillmtn.org/about-us/projects/pleshakov-piano-museum.html, call 518 263 3333 or 518 263 3330, or e-mail: email@example.com. A Web site, www.pleshakov.com, is currently under construction.