Variations on a piano theme

By Roland Peelman

You could be forgiven for thinking that tuning pianos is on the list of the most loathed occupations. Worse than vacuum cleaning, or leaf-blowing on Saturday mornings. It probably ranks up there with fumigation duties or delousing chores. It doesn’t smell but it does make a noise. Not the ear-shattering din of a building site or the annoyance of alarm systems setting off in the middle of the night, but the kind of mild irritation that, ignored at first, creeps up inside you, till it gets itchy, except that you can’t scratch it. This goes on ad nauseam till your head is ready to explode and scream: “Leave the thing alone! It sounded just fine yesterday!!”

But no, some of us like our pianos to be in tune, well-functioning, beautifully regulated, not too bright, not too dull, without squeaky pedals, in other words: just right. We like purity for Bach, pretty pearls for Mozart and Haydn and a bit of power for Beethoven. To achieve that, you need a good piano. But you also need someone who knows how to make it sound like a really good piano.

Enter Ara Vartoukian OAM, the senior concert technician from the Sydney piano store Theme and Variations who arguably knows more pianists than Wikipedia and, most importantly, knows how to make a good piano sound like the six-figure sum it represents. Pianos are very sophisticated mechanisms developed in order to combine a wide harmonic range with exceptional power and beauty. Power has something to do with the projection of the sound over a distance and is measurable. Beauty is hard to define. You can measure the balance in overtone partials or the sustain curve, but ultimately the piano sound is no more than the result of a hammer striking strings, and beauty lies in the eye (or the ear) of the beholder.

2015 Festival: Lisa Moore plays Ara's piano on Mt Stromlo. Photo by Peter Hislop

2015 Festival: Lisa Moore plays Ara's piano on Mt Stromlo. Photo by Peter Hislop

Famous pianists have (in)famous tastes. Alfred Brendel’s piano always sounded the opposite to Horowitz’ glittery pianism. Benedetti Michelangeli would only ever perform on a Steinway, carted around Europe for his (infrequent) recitals. Then there are the pianists like Geoffrey Tozer or Percy Grainger who happily embraced whatever is available.

The piano has never been a self-cleaning oven or a digital thermostat. It will react to temperature, humidity and the business of playing, all by itself. In the 2015 festival Theme and Variations brought up a Steinway Concert Grand to Mount Stromlo. On what was a rather windy spooky day on the mountain, the piano played by Lisa Moore sounded marvellous in the burnt-out ruin of the Yale telescope. During the last Festival the combination of Roger Woodward and unseasonably warm temperatures put the piano and Ara to the test. But the prospect of Chopin and Debussy in Canberra’s Fitters’ Workshop is worth a test or two. Ara’s knowledge, experience and craft is legendary in the business and takes him to many places around the world. Along with the festival’s long list of artists, he is indispensable for an event such as CIMF, even if we have to tolerate a few hours of tuning.

Book a tuning with Ara while he is in Canberra. Information: