A Musical Soiree

I had a weekend of music with an 80’s concert of Australian rock bands on Saturday night and then a piano recital the following night.  The only thing they had in common was that there was someone on the keyboards at both.

I’m going to sound like a Philistine, but this was the first piano recital I had ever been to (apart from the concerts put on by my piano teacher when I was nine years old where we played pieces written by Mozart when he was six but that’s not really the same).

The piano

The piano

Not really the same because the pianist at this piano recital wasn’t a child hoping to bash out a tune but instead, Sarah Grunstein, an Australian-born woman now living in New York and one of the world’s leading concert pianists.  After studying at the Conservatorium of Music in Sydney and then The Juilliard School in New York, Sarah launched an international career.

The New York Times has said she has ‘penetrating musical intelligence’ and acclaimed her playing as ‘tempestuous’ and ‘imbued with a luminous calm’.  During her career she has performed in the United States, Austria, Hungary, Italy, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and of course, Australia.

A retro display

Love that bike

In celebration of the Bach Tercentenary, Sarah performed Bach’s complete ‘Well-Tempered Calvier’ in London, New York and Sydney.  She has been acclaimed as the ‘shining light’ among the Bach pianists of her generation and her recital in London led to an invitation to perform at Kensington Palace before the Prince of Wales.

You would think the recital I attended would have been in a massive concert hall with me so far at the rear of the auditorium that I would be looking through binoculars to try and find the pianist but this recital was actually held in the Berkelouw Bookshop in Paddington for an audience of around a hundred people.  Tickets were just $30.00 and that included a glass of wine.

Berkelouw Books, Paddington

Berkelouw Books, Paddington

The reason this world-renowned concert pianist agreed to perform for such an intimate audience is due to a story that is well worth telling.

Sarah’s parents were both holocaust survivors.  Her father survived Nazi Germany by somehow managing to escape from 14 different concentration camps.  And as for her mother, while her mother’s sister was gassed, her mother survived Auschwitz which is absolutely incredible considering the average lifespan in that most evil place was just three weeks.  After the camps were liberated, her parents met in a facility set up by the Red Cross.

The cafe at Berkeleow Books

The cafe at Berkeleow Books

Her father was able to immigrate to Australia and part of his conditions of entry were that he work in the Australian Army for two years.  He was assigned the job of washing the dishes and he said the piles of dishes were so high he couldn’t be seen.  After he left the Army, the woman he had left behind in Germany came to join him and they were married.  They rented a small one-bedroom apartment in Bondi and he went out to look for work.

The first job he acquired was given to him by a Mr Berkeley who had a business in the rag trade.  Mr Berkeley became his mentor and his friend.  Grunstein’s wife was a seamstress and so one night they stayed up cutting out and sewing 40 dresses.  He took them to work the next day and asked his boss what he thought.  He said, ‘Give me 100 by next week’.  And an entrepreneur was born.

A great place to spend a while

A great place to spend a while

About 18 months ago Sarah’s father passed away.  She had the job of sorting out all of her father’s belongings including a large collection of books.  She had heard that Berkelouw Books was sometimes interested in second-hand books and so she rang the store.  One of the two brothers who own the bookshop, (either Robert or David), came to see her.  He noticed a portrait of her father on the wall and his eyes were drawn to the tattoo on his arm.  He asked her where he got that tattoo.  She told him he got it in the Dachau Concentration Camp in Germany, the 14th one to imprison him.

Sensing some recognition, Mr Berkelouw asked her if her father knew and used to work for a Mr Berkeley.  And Sarah said he did.  He said that man was his uncle.   His uncle fled Nazi Germany and on the ship that went from England to Australia, he changed his name from Berkelouw to the more English-sounding, Berkeley.  The generation after him changed the name back to what it had been, Berkelouw.  Sarah and the man standing in her father’s home realised there was a significant connection between them.

It's a beautiful bookshop

It’s a beautiful bookshop

Because of how his uncle had helped her father and because of their shared loved of music and because Berkelouw Books has a desire to share with its customers the skills of artists and performers, Sarah agreed to perform in the bookshop.

I great grand piano

A great grand piano

So…on Sunday night we were seated in the cafe that is on the first floor of Berkelouw Books in Paddington, looking at a Steinway piano and waiting for Sarah to perform.  She came onto the ‘stage’ and talked about how she shares an artistic vision with Robert and David and the connection between her father and their uncle.  Then she introduced the Bach Variations.

I was surprised at how emotive and engaging I found the performance to be.  As soon as Sarah started playing everyone in the room went completely still as if totally entranced by the music.  Sarah played for 90-minutes; complicated pieces with lots of crossing-over of the hands and she had no sheet music in front of her.  Even though this has been her career and something she has done for many years, I was still incredibly impressed.

The name synonymous with great pianos

The name synonymous with great pianos

For 90-minutes we were spell-bound and then sadly, it was over.  I don’t know how Sarah felt but I was exhausted just from being taken on the journey!  It was an absolute privilege to be in the audience in such an intimate space listening to someone play with such a gift.  A very special evening surrounded by people who appreciate music and love the joy that music brings; it was absolutely memorable.

Sarah is spending the next few days giving master-classes and Bach workshops in universities throughout Australia before heading back to New York.

The piano

The piano


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  1. This post brought me to tears. OMG what an incredible story, Charlie. I’m so glad you got to attend this marvelous event. I will admit to a bit of jealousy! (but in a kind, loving way lol)

  2. What an amazing story! Wow… Want an amazing opportunity to hear such a gifted player… I had a little tear reading your story and also wishing I was able to hear her play! Thank you for sharing! Liz xx

  3. What a story! What a privilege for you to hear Sarah play.
    Have a super day Charlie.
    🙂 Mandy xo

  4. What a wonderful post! Some of your best writing, ever (and everything you write is quite good). Really moving — thank you.

  5. Oh Charlie, what a touching story…thank you so much for sharing it with us…I enjoyed reading every word…
    Have a wonderful week my dear 🙂

  6. What an incredible story. I remember the previous post and can’t believe how coincidental the Berkelouw’s and Sarah’s meeting was over the books. How fortuitous for everyone! It sounds like it was a wonderful evening. What a treat!

  7. Thank you for sharing that moving story.

  8. What an incredible story all around. Thank you for sharing this. What an absolute honor to be in that audience.

  9. What a wonderful story Charlie, very moving!

  10. Charlie – thank you for a very interesting post reminding us of the stories emanating from WWII. Some people by now are little aware of the tragedies and the triumphs we all passed thru’. [I am a gentile but there was no escaping what happened!] ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier’ is often played in chamber music settings [ie the site was actually quite suitable!] – I am glad you enjoyed the parts Mme Grunstein played. Actually the collection of pieces is far longer and if piano recitals are not a vital part of your life, it is quite complex and not the easiest to appreciate. I’ll certainly return at the end of my work day or the weekend to look up the link.

  11. A very nice and touching story… I remember playing the piano as a child, taking private lessons, it was so much fun, too bad I gave it up.

  12. What an amazing story. I loved reading that…thank you.

  13. I remember your previous post well Charlie, thankyou so much for adding to the story. What an incredible coincidence and how wonderful that these families are still able to share in each other’s lives through the talents of the next generation xox

  14. What an incredible story and the fate! You told the stories very well, too Charlie! It must have been a very emotional recital. I always love this kind of stories – who would thought to meet the uncle! It’s like story from a book! Wish I could hear her play!

  15. Wow that was a beautiful post – it really brought back memories of when I tried my hand at piano 😛
    I preferred singing 😉

    Choc Chip Uru

  16. I am so glad you enjoyed it Charlie. I thought you would. Watching who is talented play the piano or any instrument really is totally spellbinding. it is an incredible story with lots of te=wists and coincidences for sure.

  17. I love hearing pianists play, and hearing Sarah’s backstory was so great! Oh to have been there with you!!

  18. What a nice follow up to your first meeting of Sarah, and an impressive sounding musical evening. And I’m not sure I have ever been to a piano recital either! I’ve been to classical music concerts, but not piano recitals per se. It sounds like I should put it on the ‘to do one day’ list.

  19. $30 with a glass of wine for 90 minutes with a great musician is a steal! Also learned a great story from this. Thanks, Charlie!

    Gourmet Getaways

  20. Like others mentioned, this brought me to tears, Charlie. I am in awe on absolutely every level. It had to be a very special evening for everyone, including Sarah, knowing that her father had such a connection to this family. Oh my but this touches me–I think this must have felt transformative for everyone in attendance. I’m now off to read your previous story…I may have read it before, but it will mean even more now. ox

  21. What a marvellous post! Sarah’s family story is fascinating and courageous.

  22. Dear Charlie,

    What an amazing story! When the stars are aligned, very special things happen. I would have loved to attend the recital since Sarah is such an exponent of Bach’s works. You must be a brilliant pianist coz Mozart began composing some of his symphonies 40-odd when he was just 8 years old.

  23. I got goosebumps reading this Charlie. I can’t even begin to imagine what millions of people and families had to endure, so it’s always interesting reading intimate, personal stories like this. 90 minutes of music in such a fabulous venue delivered by a person with such an emotional background must have been one of those lifetime experiences that one will remember forever. Thanks for sharing it with the rest of the world!

  24. Charlie that story actually brought tears to my eyes. What an amazing coincidence and perfect example of something being meant to be. How special that you got to be a part of such an intimate performance.

  25. What a wonderful story, and how special that you could hear this fabulous musician in such an intimate and perfect setting.

  26. What an amazing way to find their connection. I remember the original post and to see a part 2 is just wonderful Charlie.

  27. What an amazing story Charlie, I didn’t tear up, but nearly. Love it when the stars align and magic happens. Beautiful post. Off to read the first post now. Xx

  28. Sounds like it was the perfect night – and thanks for sharing the story 🙂

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