Wednesday, November 2, 2011

PIANOMANIA, from Lilian Franck & Robert Cibis, tracks a great piano tuner at work

How invigorating it is to be able to observe someone at work, handling a complicated job brilliantly, working under heavy pressure and making vital decisions that will change everything. Just such an experience is to be found in PIANOMANIA -- the award-winning 2009 documentary by Lilian Franck and Robert Cibis that was evidently quite the smash in Europe and Britain and is finally getting its theatrical release, interestingly enough opening up in New York and Los Angeles after playing most of the rest of the country earlier in the year.

Though there are famous pianists galore in Pianomania -- Alfred Brendel, Lang Lang and Pierre-Laurent Aimard, to name just  three -- filmmakers Franck, shown at right, and Cibis (below, left) very smartly concentrate their entire efforts around the Vienna-based chief technician and Master Tuner for Steinway & Sons, Stephan Knüpfer, who seems to have dedicated his career (and practically his whole life) to matching the right piano with the right pianist. It ain't easy.
I don't think you need to be a pianist to appreciate all that goes on here, but it might help. TrustMovies himself played the piano, rather badly, in his younger days, but he found it occasionally tricky, just keeping up with all that was going on in the film. The specificity involved in Knüpfer's work astounds: At one point a particular key sounds slightly sharp -- but only when it played in a third with two other keys! And our heroic Master Tuner, shown below, must right the situation. What an ear this fellow has! (Next time Avery Fisher Hall gets an acoustic redo, the folk at Lincoln Center really should consider hiring Knüpfer.)

We learn that most often pianists search for a concert grand, the sound from which is powerful enough to fill a huge concert hall but is also sonorous -- "It has colors," as our tuner and certain of the pianists put it. They all, it seems, want different things, sometimes from the same piano. And damned if Knüpfer doesn't come through in the crunch and give it to them.

At one point the tuner/technician has a conversation about the neuroses among musicians -- including himself. We see bits and pieces of these, as various performers come in and out of view. That's Lang Lang above, right (who likes to rehearse right up until the time that the audience is entering the hall), and Brendel, below, but neither seem to be the type who would have a tuner at his wits' end.

Aimar, however, from what we witness here, just might be. Though the two men appear to understand and appreciate each other, the pianist (shown below) seems such a stickler for, well, literally everything, that we fear our hero may finally not be able to come through. In the film's last half hour, we observe all the deatiled work that goes into, not just a concert but a recording session with Aimar.

The funniest and most surprising of the pianists is the duo known as Igudesman & Joo, made up of Aleksey Ifudesman and Richard Hyung-Ki Joo.  When Mr Joo (shown below) sits down at the keyboard (or underneath it) and literally bangs out a number of amazing things, older folk will be put in mind of Victor Borge, but without any of that late comedian/pianist's insufferable self-regard and pomposity. Joo is a delight, and Pianomania -- though I think it will appeal most to those who understand and appreciate concert hall acoustics (or who follow and perhaps dote upon concert pianists) -- should prove equally entertaining for the intelligent arthouse crowd who don't mind engaging with a subject this abstruse.

From First Run Features, the documentary opens for a one-week run in New York (at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center) and Los Angeles (at Laemmle's Royal) this Friday, November 4. There will weekend-only screenings November 5 and 6 at Laemmle's Encino Town Center 5 and Claremont 5. You can view all past and forthcoming playdates by clicking here.

No comments: