What's in a name: the Overs and the Stuart

The Sydney University news - UniArts section
July 23, 2004

by Louise Maral

"It's a difficulty for boutique pianomakers to carve out an identity because there's a dominant model built around the Stienway," said the Conservatorium's Assistant Principal Peter McCallum.

"If they make clone Steinways the only advantage is price and if they do something individual they don't want to make it so eccentrically different in sound that pianists won't use it or audiences won't appreciate it. I think both of these piano makers have applied genuinely inventive minds to this problem and found interesting solutions."

He was referring to Wayne Stuart and Ron Overs, who, after a 100 year slump in piano design, are leading the way with pianos distinctly different from the Steinway and each other.

Last year the Conservatorium bought a Stuart and Sons piano which it launched in concert on 31 May this year. In March the Conservatorium and the Conservatorium High School bought Ron Overs' fourth and fifth pianos which will be launched in concert on 5 August.

The main innovation of the well established Stuart - a full concert grand made from beautiful Australian timbers - is in the way the sound is transferred from string to sounding board, Associate Professor McCallum said, its most distinguishable feature being its clear, vibrant tonal quality.

The innovations of piano technician Ron Overs, who began making pianos four years ago, are greater efficiency of piano action, the markedly reduced friction allowing the pianist unprecedented levels of control, and a new sound board design which allows the notes to resonate for longer, producing greater warmth in the bass.

Most distinctively, both makers were exploring different avenues in piano sound, with the result that their instruments each had special appeal for certain pianists and for particular purposes while maintaining the versatility to play standard repertoire.

"The clarity of the Stuart is one of the big pluses, especially for the classical period where we need clean and crisp phrasing and very clearly layered dynamics where you hear the music on different levels," said senior lecturer Gerard Willems who chose to use the Stuart piano for his ABC Classics CDs of Beethoven's complete piano sonatas (1999) and concertos (2003).

While most modern pianos prided themselves on an evenness of sound from top to bottom register, he said, Wayne Stuart had intentionally separated out the timbres in a way more akin to earlier pianos.

Stuart had extended the keyboard, too, by adding notes to the bottom and top registers and, while they weren't used in standard repertoire, Mr Willems said, they enhanced the resonance of the sound through "the ringing of these notes in sympathetic vibration". "He's also introduced a fourth pedal which moves the hammers closer to the strings than a usual soft pedal, giving a wonderfully super-soft, silvery quality to the sound."

The Stuart's transparency of sound levels also lent itself well to contemporary repertoire, he said, a fact he demonstrated at the latest Adelaide Festival with large works by Andrew Ford and Mary Finsterer.

Mr Willems played a mojor role in the launch of the Conservatorium's Stuart piano in May, featuring Beethoven's Tempest Sonata as well as Debussy's Fireworks to "demonstrate another side to the instrument".

"With a lot of Beethoven you work predominantly in the middle," he said, "whereas Debussy takes you from extreme ends of the keyboard, using a far larger range of notes."

PhD candidate Scott Davie who played Stuart pianos for several functions during the Olympics, also finds French impressionist music "quite extraordinary on the Stuart", liking the piano for its "lightnes of action", its "luxurious soft feeling" and the "distinctive sound" arising from using both pedals at once.

Currently though, he's more drawn towards the Overs which he'd used to record his 2002 ABC Classics CD, Lilacs that featured the music of Rachmaninoff whose melodic contour is the subject of his PhD.

"Rachmaninoff's music is at times incredibly big and the Overs piano gives you that volume and strength even though its smaller than the full concert grand", he said, "It can also be incredibly delicate."

Ron Overs' latest piano with its new soundboard allowed the notes to "live for longer then bloom", he said, creating an "incredible richness of sound".

"A piano that presents you with a huge palette of possibilities in terms of sound is something that I look for and I find that Ron Overs is creating pianos that allow this."

Later this year, Mr Davie, who teaches Russian music history at the Conservatorium, will be recording a CD using the most recent Overs and featuring Rachmaninoff and Mussorgsky.

Keyboard lecturer Stephanie McCallum has performed recitals on Stuart pianos with much pleasure, but finds its "lean and penetrating sound", deliberately different from the Steinway, to be "less pleasing in big romantic repertoire" which is her specialisation and forte.

Her latest CDs, released in 2003 on the ABC Classics label, feature the music of Liszt, and she is also an expert on Alkan whose Solo Symphony she'll perform in concert next month to launch the Conservatorium's Overs piano.

"The sound is very rich, warm and expressive," she said of the Conservatorium's Overs piano. "I'm amazed at how big the bass is for a smaller piano: a large, rich, blended sound which in some ways couldn't be further removed from the sound of the Stuart."

"The piano is beautifully regulated and extremely easy to play, with very little friction on the keyboard which makes it seem easier to control, and yet the response is immediate and therefore harder to control at first until you get used to it."

The concert to launch the Conservatorium's the Conservatorium High School's newly acquired Overs pianos is a program of French music, organised by Ms McCallum and featuring the works of Alkan, Ropartz and Debussy. Other performers will include baritone Michael Halliwell with pianist David Miller, and cellist Georg Pedersen with pianist Elizabeth Powell.

"Both Wayne Stuart and Ron Overs have a great passion and belief in what they're doing and all the pianists at the Conservatorium support their efforts," Ms McCallum said.

"Both are aware that the instrument a musician plays is a very personal thing," Peter McCallum said, "and that musicians sometimes like imperfections, the warts of an instrument, because of the way they interact with it."

"I think it's ironic," Mr Davie said, "that so many people judge a piano by its name and choose the brand above actually looking at the instrument itself and thinking about and really listening to what it can actually do."

"Violin and flute players perform with their own instruments and are so attuned to the differences of sound possibilities with each individual instrument, but it's harder for pianists who often have to take what's there. Now the pianists who are students at the Conservatorium will have the opportunity to play some different instruments to Steinways and Yamahas and hopefully think about their approach to pianos and piano sound. I see this as an incredibly positive thing."

The Overs launch will be held in the Conservatorium's Recital Hall West at 6pm on 5 August (tickets $15 and $10).

Published in the University of Sydney News, July 23, 2004
First published on Overs Pianos website, August 4, 2004