Last winter, shortly after our Grand Opening, Professor Brad Snelling walked into the store. A faculty member at the College of St. Scholastica here in Duluth (CSS), he told a fascinating story about a former piano professor at CSS named Jan Chiapusso, and his friend, James Franklin Lewis, who was also a professor there. The Lewis family had donated a large collection of memorabilia to the library at CSS where Brad works, and among the letters were correspondences between the pianist and this poet, Lewis.
Brad is fascinated by pianists. When he learned that Chiapusso had taught Rosalyn Tureck before coming to Duluth in the early 1930s, he decided to dig deeper. It turns out that Chiapusso had recorded some piano rolls back in the 1920s for Ampico. Brad had heard about the new piano store in town, and came in to ask if we had a player piano he could rent for a presentation on a former CSS faculty member. We do, after all, advertise that we carry vintage pianos! Well, I said, "Not like you are thinking, but we do have this Disklavier from Yamaha over here." I demonstrated it. His interest was piqued, and he left the store that day, promising to be in touch.
Not long after, I received digital files from Brad of some digitally remasterd piano roll performances by Jan Chiapusso! Peter Phillips is the person who did that work and provided the files. So, of course, I was curious to see if they played. I downloaded them to a flash drive, and plugged them into a CVP 609 Clavinova. Sure enough, the MIDI files played! So, I took the next step, over to our little Disklavier baby grand, and again, I was hearing Liszt played by Chiapusso, but this time with an actual piano playing with keys and pedaling. His crashing octaves were almost too much for the 5' piano, but I told Brad he was in luck.
Very soon thereafter, Brad came to the store to see and hear Chiapusso in action. Curiously, at that same time, a man walked into the store that Brad knew. It was David Lewis, son of J.F. Lewis, who had been friends with the pianist. It was very moving for David to hear this man playing before his very eyes!
Skip to the fall. Paul and I moved the Disklavier into Mitchell Auditorium at CSS. He tuned it and polished it, so it looked and sounded fabulous! The next day, Brad, along with his colleague Heidi Johnson, gave their lecture/recital as a part of a series sponsored by the College of Arts and Letters. Brad discussed the importance of Jan Chiapusso to the art of piano playing, and how it has carried through from his student Rosalyn Tureck (she credited him with pointing her in the direction of Bach, which would become her specialty), to Glenn Gould, who called Tureck an inspiration, to Angela Hewitt, who is playing a Bach concert at CSS next week, and is regarded as the current queen of Bach pianists.
Then it was time. The lights dimmed, with spotlights highlighting the golden interior of the new Disklavier. A gigantic screen showed a projection of the front of the piano (keys and pedals) at the back of the hall, and then, Jan Chiapusso came to life again. Seventy-one years after his last performance at CSS, he was heard playing seven selections by Liszt, Chopin and his own Couperin transcriptions. The little piano sounded great in the space, but we were all amazed by the interpretations, the voicing, the rubato, the sheer life that this piano breathed into the room. For 25 minutes, nothing else mattered, not even the lack of Chiapusso's physical presence. His musical soul was still alive, and sharing with an audience.