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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.