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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

THE SCOOP | Curved Keyboard: The Maene-Viñoly Concert Grand Makes Its Debut At International Festival

By Anya Wassenberg on July 22, 2022

The Maene-Viñoly Concert Grand (Photo courtesy of Rafael Viñoly Architects)
The Maene-Viñoly Concert Grand (Photo courtesy of Rafael Viñoly Architects)

When pianist Kirill Gerstein sat down on the bench at the Verbier Church to play Stravinsky’s Piano Sonata and other repertoire on July 19, it wasn’t only his passionate performance that was on display.

It was the keyboard itself.

Gerstein was playing a brand new instrument created for his Verbier Festival performance, the Maene-Viñoly Concert Grand, crafted with a curved keyboard. The sweep of the keyboard is designed to match the ergonomics of a pianist’s reach.

The world of classical music is notoriously unforgiving, particularly when it comes to physicality. Major educational institutions virtually never get requests for disability accommodations because it’s simply understood that high level performance requires specific physical facility.

The new piano is the result of six years of development, a joint project of master piano maker Chris Maene and architect Rafael Viñoly.

Rafael Viñoly, one of the piano’s creators, commented in a release. “Chris Maene’s obvious expertise, sensitivity and commitment to excellence can only have come out of a lifetime of probing and learning about making pianos. But more than that, no other piano maker has the courage to challenge the status quo of a culture and industry that has seen little innovation on behalf of its most important exponents, professional artists. Chris has the courage of an artist, because he is one, as well as a consummate craftsman.”

The Maene-Viñoly Concert Grand (Photo courtesy of Rafael Viñoly Architects)
The Maene-Viñoly Concert Grand (Photo courtesy of Rafael Viñoly Architects)

The Maene-Viñoly Concert Grand

Viñoly is also an amateur pianist with personal contacts within the classical music world. He says that Maestro Daniel Barenboim and virtuoso Martha Argerich both encouraged him to develop his idea in a conversation the three had back in 2016.

Viñoly looked up piano maker Chris Maene, who had notably developed a straight-strung piano for Barenboim.

Piano kinematics researcher and professor Renzo Pozzo of the Department of Medical and Biological Sciences at the University of Udine (Italy), and German pianist and researcher Dr. Henriette Gärtner were part of the team that developed the keyboard’s exact curve. The curve was chosen to match the natural rotation of the arm from the shoulders, and to make playing at both ends of the keyboard, currently an exercise in contortion, effortless.

The strings, in consequence, are set radially over a larger soundboard that creates the potential for greater power as well as subtlety. Other details:

  • Renner action built to Maene’s specs;
  • Red spruce from the Alps was used for the soundboard;
  • The rim is crafted in hard maple and mahogany.

Both traditional and computer-assisted design elements were used to craft the instrument. The team also consulted with internationally renowned artists such as Gerstein, along with Barenboim, Steven Hough, Emanuel Ax, and others.

The Maene-Viñoly Concert Grand (Photo courtesy of Rafael Viñoly Architects)
The Maene-Viñoly Concert Grand (Photo courtesy of Rafael Viñoly Architects)

Change is good…

The new Maene-Viñoly Concert Grand is not the first piano to feature a curved keyboard. The first dates back to 1780 in Vienna, and a piano maker by the name of Wilhelm Neuhaus. Other piano makers toyed with the idea through the 19th century. However, the new Maene-Viñoly Concert Grand is certainly the most advanced from a performance perspective.

Kirill Gerstein commented on his debut with the instrument in a media release.

“Classical forms remain vibrant and relevant through change and development. The Maene-Viñoly concert grand advances the discourse of what a modern grand piano is while acknowledging and utilizing the traditions and ideas of the past. Its curved keyboard, designed to follow the natural arc of the arm’s movement, is a starting point for a re-examined layout of the larger soundboard that follows along this curvature,” he said.

“The unified design, ergonomics, and function give the piano a unique sonic signature. This piano is a musical and artistic creation, as art innovates and provokes by building on the achievements of the past to look into the future. I am thrilled and honoured to give the first public performance on the Maene-Viñoly Concert Grand.”

Gerstein’s Verbier recital can be viewed on MediciTV here.

Master piano maker Chris Maene comments about the process. “Rafael Viñoly is an exceptional architect with a clear vision and a profound passion for his creations. In the instrument’s design, the visual aspects are a logical extension of the drive to meet its acoustic and ergonomic goals.

“By considering it as an integrated whole, he drove us to challenge a grand piano’s traditional set-up and embrace the consequences of the foundational idea. The physics of conveying the forces applied to the ergonomic keyboard lent itself to a radial straight strung arrangement and to our unique expertise. The result is astonishing: from Rafael Viñoly’s ideas arose a radically new concert grand, with unique looks and an exquisite sound!”

The current price for the Maene-Viñoly Concert Grand piano, hand-made to order, is €333,000, or over $439,000 CAD.

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