KATIE HAFNER'S A ROMANCE ON THREE LEGS / A Book Reading in Hong Kong

 

A ROMANCE ON THREE LEGS
A Book Reading by KATIE HAFNER
with VERNE EDQUIST, Piano Technician
Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall
Saturday morning (13 October 2012)

Every once in a while, The Chopin Society of Hong Kong flags a music-related book to be its unofficial “Book of the Year”, and organises a breakfast meeting around it with its author in attendance. In 2006, that book was Gary Graffman’s I Really Should Be Practising, his autobiography published in 1981, and the esteemed pianist (a jury member of the Hong Kong International Piano Competition) was invited to speak about his many years on and off the performing stage.


This year, the honour went to Katie Hafner’s A Romance On Three Legs: Glenn Gould’s Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano, published in 2007. This is a well-researched and lovingly written story of the late great Canadian pianist, his favourite Steinway grand piano CD-318, and the blind piano technician Verne Edquist who made his dreams on the keyboard possible. This being the 30th anniversary of Gould’s premature demise (besides also being the 80th anniversary of his birth), the Society invited both author and technician as guests of The Joy of Music Festival, which also featured a rare re-performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations (more about that later).

The reading began with Hafner, a former New York Times journalist with an interest in technology, relating how the idea of writing this book came about. It was a confluence of ideas, a prodigious pianistic genius, an equally eccentric piano, and an amazing technician with a most unusual background – bingo, a book!  The title itself came from the lips of Gould, as he described his relationship with his “perfect” piano - a wartime New York Steinway with an extremely light action – as a “romance on three legs”.

Short excerpts were read from various chapters of the book, and much of it comes across with a poetic fluidity. It truly is one of those books you would read over and over again. Hafner is not a professional musician or musicologist, and thus avoids all kinds of jargon by keeping the prose light but still highly informative. Ultimately, the true star of the volume is not the pianist (already well documented) nor the instrument (now housed in Ottawa) but the technician himself.


Verne Edquist, a central figure to this story, was introduced. Hardly any of the other Glenn Gould biographies mention his name, which is what made Romancea most touching and human account. Now 81 years old, he is built like a lumberjack and has a deep baritone voice. Despite his “new found” fame, he is soft-spoken, touched with an old world graciousness and humility, and is a most avid raconteur. His first encounter with GG was to reject him, because he stood firm against compromising on work on Gould’s Chickering grand piano. This won the respect of the pianist which was the basis of a trusting relationship of over 20 years.

Verne's childhood in rural Saskatchewan (right) and a photo as a young piano technician.

Verne was born with congenital cataracts, which resulted in a loss of 90% of his vision. He left his native Saskatchewanas a child to study at the Ontario Schoolof the Blind, where he apprenticed as a piano tuner. He gratefully recounted how his blindness had saved him from a life of poverty. Over the years he rose against all odds to become the chief technician for Steinway in Toronto. He retired fifteen years ago because high pitched tinnitus had prevented him from doing his best for his clients. By that time, his list of pianist clients had also included Rudolf Serkin (“the happiest pianist”), Arthur Rubinstein (“whose pianos got increasing louder because he was becoming deaf”) and Duke Ellington (“Do a good job for Dukey, would you?”).

Verne Edquist's cameo appearance in 32 Films About Glenn Gould.

He kept a strictly professional relationship with GG, and was often left in the dark on what the pianist really thought of him. Gould was particularly well known for being miserly with praise and had a love-hate relationship with Steinway (going as far as to sue them for bodily hurt after a former chief technician had pat him on the back). Once Verne asked him, “So how am I doing?” GG’s reply was, “You’re one of the best.” At Gould’s funeral, Verne was touched when Gould’s father took him aside as said, “Glenn thought the world of you.”

Glenn Gould's reminder to all that he does not shake hands. Gould in a cast after being "maimed" by a New York Steinway technician (words in red are from Pianomaniac).

To round up, Verne offered a list of aphorisms that had stood him in good stead, besides defining his amazing life and career, which would also apply well to the restless of youth today.

1. To accomplish something, go out there and do it.

2. Troubles can be a challenge.

3. A man who has never made an mistake never did anything worthwhile.

4. The impossible is only the untried (motto of the Ontario Schoolof the Blind).

5. The only place that success comes before work is in the dictionary.

Perhaps Mr Edquist could have also taken on another career, that of a counsellor and life coach!

Verne has synesthesia, a condition which equates hearing sounds with seeing colours. For him F major is always blue in colour. On the right, Verne autographs my copy of Romance.