BY TOBIAS ALEXANDER | From the venerable Stern Auditorium in Carnegie Hall to the intimate performance space in National Sawdust in Williamsburg, there are no shortages of piano recitals going on in New York City.
But one would be hard pressed to find one that features performance on a stretto Steinway piano, a new kind of instrument whose narrower keys more closely resemble those of a harpsichord in dimension and yet with the same big sound of a grand piano.
You’ll find plenty of them, though, at the third annual installment of the International Stretto Piano Festival, a series of live concerts in New York City led by pianist and entrepreneur Hannah Reimann, the proud owner herself of a stretto Steinway grand.
Reimann, who lives in Greenwich Village, had her piano rebuilt and modified with narrow keys in 1997 and is providing it for others to play at the festival. “Stretto” means “narrow” in Italian. Any grand piano can be retrofitted to have slimmer-than-conventional, stretto keys today.
This month, at Baruch College Performing Arts Center’s Engelman Recital Hall, near Madison Square Park, you’ll have a chance to see a wide range of pianists playing on pianos that have a 5.9-octave span, contrasted with the conventional 6.5-octave size. Twenty-five pianists of all ages will be performing throughout the nine-day music fest, showing off the benefits of playing on the stretto instruments. Many of them have small- and medium-sized hands, but there will also be some “allies” — large-handed stars — in the mix.
The piano-palooza, in fact, will feature artists on five continents with many playing a dozen virtual concerts, all of which are free of charge to online to audiences everywhere. The in-person concerts are ticketed; a festival pass for eight concerts costs $100.
The overarching goal of the festival is to begin year-round concerts in New York City on stretto pianos and to establish a new concert hall here where pianists can have a choice of key size.
Artists from around the globe have expressed interest in playing these concerts for more than a year and a fundraiser has been initiated to move the project forward.
Reimann, the driving force behind the festival, is motivated by a desire to see, as she put it, “a greater world of innovation to an instrument that has seen few size and structural changes in mainstream products in 100 years.”
One of the benefits of this kind of piano: Younger pianists, most women and many men can excel when less constrained by the limited reach of smaller hands. A recent study at the University of North Texas found that 75 percent of its piano students wished they had larger hands. Playing a keyboard with narrower keys effectively gives the pianist a larger hand span! Studies have revealed 75 percent of people who play pianos wish the keys were narrower.
Reimann — who is a singer, teacher, composer, actor and filmmaker, as well as a pianist — wants to see more stretto pianos being made and played on concert stages.
“This will only happen when manufacturers experience large numbers of artists in concert halls playing them,” she stressed, “showing from their power what potential they possess and how important it is to play and create more of them, making stretto pianos mainstream, recognized broadly by media and musicians everywhere.”
Currently, most pianos with stretto keys have been retrofitted, most often by DS Keyboards in Titusville, Pennsylvania. New stretto upright pianos are built in Germany by Steingraeber Piano and are also offered by Petrov and Hailun Piano. Steinway & Sons appointed Reimann as the first public liaison to help secure custom orders of new stretto grands. She has found that customers who found her Web site often had attended the Stretto Festival or were members of PASK (Pianists for Alternately Sized Keys).
The inaugural festival took place in the shadow of the pandemic in 2021. It featured 18 online concerts performed by pianists on four continents with more than 400 people in attendance. The concerts, in total, grossed $10,000 with zero marketing costs and grassroots promotion within the community.
The following year, in 2022, the festival featured 32 artists from five continents and began to attract the interest of professionals who didn’t even know stretto pianos existed. The second annual event also featured live, in-person, ticketed concerts in New York City. The ’22 event included world-renowned pianist Roland Pöntinen, who came from Sweden to raise money for Ukraine.
“I tried this piano in 1998 and used the Schumann Toccata as my first test piece,” Pöntinen said. “It’s a particularly taxing piece for normal-sized hands. And I was amazed.”
“Last year’s festival showed we could strengthen the community of pianists playing stretto pianos, by aligning with each other in performance and becoming known via performance as a worldwide phenomenon,” Reimann said.
Among the luminaries that will be featured in this year’s New York City events are virtuoso and media personality Christopher O’Riley, who will perform his “Virtually Tempered Clavier” in advance of his Kennedy Center performance in November and in celebration of the 300th anniversary of JS Bach’s masterwork; Steve Sandberg, composer of “Dora the Explorer” and multigenre master, who will share the stage with Brazilian pianist/songwriter Luiz Simas; and Roger Lord, “The Canadian Prince of the Piano,” who has played for millions on Chinese TV.
For the closing night celebration, legendary composer David Amram will perform his classic Beat-period composition “Pull My Daisy.” Before Amram and his band take the stage, newcomer virtuoso Ran Feng from Beijing, a Liszt specialist, will play Brahms and Liszt.
Reimann will play and sing piano songs of Joni Mitchell on July 18 in an in-person performance here in New York. She has specialized in Mitchell’s music for 11 years.
With growing enthusiasm growing building over this new kind of keyboard everywhere, Reimann expects this year’s festival to rock.
The International Stretto Piano Festival, in-person concert dates, July 15 – 23, at Engelman Recital Hall at Baruch College Performing Arts Center (BPAC), 55 Lexington Ave., entrance on E. 25th Street between Third and Lexington Avenues. For more information on both the in-person and virtual concerts, visit strettopianoconcerts.org/2023.