Pianofest: An Injured Hand Spawns a Mighty Oak

An artists’ colony for pianists
Two of last summer’s Pianofest students performed a duet at Stony Brook Southampton’s Avram Theater.

Thirty years ago, Paul Schenly, an acclaimed classical pianist, injured a hand. From that acorn, the oak of Pianofest of the Hamptons grew. While Mr. Schenly was undergoing physical therapy in New York City, a friend suggested he escape its steamy summers and continue his recovery in the Hamptons.

“So I rented a small cabin on Three Mile Harbor,” he said during a recent conversation, “and I just fell in love with nature and the Hamptons. I thought it would be a wonderful place to start a sort of artists’ colony for pianists.”

He discussed the idea with several local people, and one, Bill Plate, was so enthusiastic about it that he offered to connect Mr. Schenly with others who might be helpful. 

Then, as now, he was teaching at the Cleveland Institute of Music during the academic year. The institute offered to lend him six pianos for the summer, which he trucked to East Hampton, and he found a house on Pantigo Road that was sturdy enough to house them.

From the beginning, Pianofest has offered concentrated study to a small group of pianists selected by audition, who are also given opportunities to perform at local venues. The program started with six students. Now in its 29th year, it has 26 students, 13 grand pianos, and receives several hundred applications a year.

“We don’t advertise,” Mr. Schenly said. “It’s all by word of mouth. This year’s group has students from 12 different countries and 22 different schools.” He noted that there are often students with double majors, usually coupling music with math or physics. This summer he has not one but two weightlifting champions, and a figure skater who was performing in Europe in “Holiday on Ice” when Mr. Schenly tried to contact him about travel arrangements.

“Concerning repertoire,” he said, “Pianofest decides on the program the night before the concert. Usually four or five pianists perform. The programs are selected based on what I hear during the week at lessons, on giving everyone performance opportunities, and on creating a balanced and entertaining program.”

This year, the program will present 14 concerts, starting Monday at 5:30 p.m. at the Southampton Cultural Center’s Levitas Center for the Arts. The concerts will continue twice weekly until Aug. 14, with programs in Brookhaven, Stony Brook Southampton, and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in East Hampton. Tickets are $20; free for students with ID.