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Teams of pianists get hands on in international ensemble competition

Winfried Rompf sits in his studio at one of three baby grand pianos. Photo by Bonnie Lee La Madeleine.

Reported by Bonnie Lee La Madeleine

Piano benches will be crowded this weekend when teams of pianists’ hands dance together along a single keyboard at the North West International Piano Ensemble Competition.

On Nov. 26, local and international ensembles will gather at Norman Rothstein Theatre to perform in pairs, trios and quartets on one or two pianos for the final round of the competition. This means that one piano could have up to six hands playing it at once. They are competing for $10,000 in total prize money and each piece was written specifically for the competition.

The average piano keyboard has 88 keys aligned along a platform that is around 160 centimetres wide.

A musical conversation

Piano ensemble performances are about conversation and choreography, and it overcomes the challenge individual pianists face when playing alone, according to Terence Dawson, a UBC professor and chair of its keyboard division.

“Since only one hand can play the melody, the players must listen carefully to ensure all the other hands support and complement that hand,” Dawson said.

According to the competition’s founder Winfried Rompf, four hands on the keyboard, produces a more beautiful tone and colour.

“The reason why is because you are not relying on the pedal to sustain [notes],” Rompf said. “Your hands are actually able to play, almost like a string quartet on one keyboard.”

More than a performance

Rompf said to watch the performers like one watches elite athletes.

“You have some music at the competition that is definitely designed to show off,” he said. With tricky overhand playing and quick movement, it is almost like a theatre sport.

“The danger of collision is always there.”

“I want this event to become a Canadian Hallmark in serious classical music,” he said, and one that he hopes will inspire more local talent to come out of the shadows.

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