Willoughby: An artist behind the festival stage keyed in to every note
Legends & Legacies
Without the Aspen Music Festival, the entire summer sounds strange. The seasonal festival cycle includes the care and movement of hundreds of pianos. Some of my favorite hours working for the festival were spent at the tent, watching and listening to piano tuners Kurt Oppens and Robert Schoppert. To tune a concert grand for a performance was in itself a performance of art and science.
As past festival seasons drew to a close, locals purchased many of the pianos that had been borrowed from their manufacturers. I would bet Aspen has more pianos per household than does anywhere else in America.
Baldwin Pianos would lend brand-new pianos to the festival each summer because a piano that had been broken in during weeks of care by piano technicians played better than would a brand new one. Sensitive musicians know the difference.
Oppens, the sole technician for decades, also wrote the concert notes for the weekly performance programs. He was highly introverted and rarely spoke. To observe his concentration and intensity when tuning resembled the thrill of watching any world-class professional musician at work. Edith, his wife, served as a piano faculty member. Their daughter Ursula, who grew up in the festival, led a distinguished career premiering the works of American contemporary composers. Her performances garnered five Grammy nominations.
For many years the festival had only one piano, leased from Steinway, at the tent. Each year one of the performers was given the honor to select the piano. Steinway kept a warehouse in New York full of pianos, and shipped them around the country for various performances. Identified by numbers, certain pianos gained a following among performers. Most performers were under contract with Steinway, but some signed with Baldwin. Later Baldwin loaned the festival a concert grand, used as the orchestral piano.
Oppens knew the Steinways as you would know your child, its quirks and conditions. When the festival bought its own Steinways, he overhauled them. More than one piano came in handy because artists fell into two camps. One loved soft keyboard action, the other a harder action, and each produced a different sound.
Performers would make requests such as telling Oppens that a specific key was not functioning quite right, and he would make adjustments. Often an adjustment required that he pull out the entire keyboard section of the piano to access the area that needed service.
To tune in Aspen offered a unique challenge: the music tent was, after all, a tent. The temperature changed throughout the day and night. And humidity, or lack thereof, had its way with the wooden parts. If Oppens tuned a piano at 1 p.m. for a 4 p.m. concert, he would take into account the expected changes. While you or I might not hear the difference, he would.
I remember times when Oppens would spend 10 minutes on one note. The sound grated on my ears. He would bang that same key over and over, and make tiny adjustments that I had to assume he could hear. I couldn’t.
Terse, minimal directions conveyed his tuning schedule, or desired piano placements. I still remember one of the longest conversations we had, when I was first working at the tent. It was my job to make everything spic and span, and I had proudly polished the piano. When he came to tune he could smell the polish, and admonished me about how it was detrimental to his piano.
Over the years I had the pleasure to hear many of the world’s finest performers. On my list of favorites, I include Oppens. I may have heard more of his artistry than other concert-goers have heard from pianists.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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