Haute Spot

PIANOFEST’S Paul Schenly Composes a Community

It’s been nearly 40 years since Paul Schenly began coming to the South Fork for the summer. It’s an annual tradition that’s become an institution. Quite literally.

Paul Schenly (center) welcomes a group of gifted musicians to Pianofest.

The founder of Pianofest in the Hamptons recalls that first year in the mid-1980s when he ventured out East. The pianist — who has been a soloist with several major United States-based orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, and Cleveland Orchestra, among others — had been living at the Ansonia on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, traveling and working non-stop as a performer. He was desperately in need of some vacation time.

A friend suggested that that he head out east. So Schenly followed the advice and found a small cottage to rent on Three Mile Harbor in East Hampton. The experience changed his life.

“I had been working hard without a break and needed time to get away, to think, to relax, to recharge,” he said. “I’m so glad I did because that’s how I discovered this unusually beautiful and inspiring area. The sunsets, the nature, the culture. I was hooked!”

The journey not only proved to be a balm for his soul, but it also provided the busy musician a new purpose. More than just a summertime getaway, the East End became a place for annual pilgrimage for Schenly, who is now the artistic director for Piano Cleveland in Ohio.

Here in the Hamptons, he realized an opportunity to teach and share the experience with others. Thus, Pianofest was born. Featuring concentrated study and weekly recitals at venues across the East End during the summer season, the immersive experience has proved just as rewarding for emerging talent as it has for local music lovers. The program has fostered a wide array of prodigiously gifted musicians and has helped to cement the Hamptons as a serious setting for concert pianists looking to learn and grow their careers. Past performers, guests, faculty, and artists in residence include Jerome Lowenthal, Ursula Oppens, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Konstantin Soukhovetski, Michelle Cann, Sergei Babayan, Yefim Bronfman, Andre Watts, Richard Goode, Anton Nel, Claude Frank, Arie Vardi, Melvin Chen, Yoheved Kaplinsky, John O’Connor, and Pavel Nersessian.

Typically presenting about a dozen or so college-age conservatory students, the festival program focuses on ethic-based support rather than competition. Building a well-rounded person instead of single-minded musical automatons is important to Schenly, who prides himself with providing his charges with a community within which they can learn and grow while nurturing their own friendships, performance opportunities and positive life experiences.

“I do everything I can to create a non-competitive and happy atmosphere where they can have fun and grow as people, to experience art and life, while they’re learning about composition and fingering,” he says.

Though the performers are housed in a variety of rental spots across East Hampton, they spend much of their time as a group, at the practice house in East Hampton, which has 11 grand pianos, and even one in the kitchen, reports Schenly. Beach breaks and leisure time are built into the program too, he says.

“It’s not just a piano competition, it’s total immersion, where everyone is doing everything together, including working together to prepare the food,” he says. “They’re slicing, and dicing, and cooking together in concert.”

It’s amazing to watch the friendships and partnerships being formed, he adds. In fact, Anderson and Roe, a famously successful piano duo with Billboard Chart-topping albums and several Emmy-nominated music videos, met the first time at Pianofest, according to Schenly.

This summer, he says he’s “looking forward to new pianists, new talent, new music and new faculty,” especially since Covid adversely impacted the past couple of years. The 34th Pianofest season will also offer up the inaugural Annaliese Soros Visiting Artist Program, which will bring a slew of fresh faces, and even more opportunity, to the festival.

“I can’t wait for our first concert in June,” Schenly says, opining that he’s “full of gratitude for this time and place” where’s he’s been able to develop from “a bright young thing to a wise old owl” since he first ventured out East and formed Pianofest. “It’s the beginning of another new chapter, of sharing and appreciating music, engaging the audience, coming back to this beautiful place. And, of course, making new friends.

Learn more at pianofest.com.