July 14, 2017
Sydney Symphony profile: Dealing with small hands (and other life matters)
Orli Shaham
Orli Shaham

Last week, after Orli performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.24 in C minor with our orchestra, she joined Simon for an exclusive SSO Piano Club Q & A about everything from their ‘artist’ partners, having small hands and concert disasters.

Simon Tedeschi: We as pianists talk about hand size constantly. For a pianist, I have to an extent, struggled with small hands. And I noticed with yours, that you also have small hands.

Orli Shaham: I confess to having tiny hands (laughs) ... My whole childhood I played the piano and thought "Oh well my hands will grow – I’ll get to that". I remember being about 19 and looking at my hands and thinking I should have picked the flute! When I was in my mid-20s I met the pianist Leon Fleisher whom I adored and whose recordings I had grown up on. He famously had a hand injury in his right hand and had to stop using his right hand for a long time – about 20 years. During that time he researched every possible thing you could research about hands and how they work...and we had one of those pianist-to-pianist talks... I was playing the Brahms D Minor concerto and I was complaining very loudly about those octave trills and the size of my hand, and he gave me these stretches for my hand. My hands have absolutely grown since then! My fingers are not longer, but they’re more flexible and I can grasp more in them by doing these stretches that I’ve been doing now for more than 15 years.

Simon: Another thing we have in common, Orli, is that our families are interesting families. I grew up in a very intellectually nutritious family ...I think the same can be said for you?

Orli: I grew up in a family of scientists. My father was an astrophysicist and my mother still is a molecular geneticist and I also have two siblings – one who is a musician (violinist Gil Shaham) and an older brother who despite being a wonderful pianist is a neurobiochemist.

Simon: My brother is a doctor, so there you go.

Orli: For us it was all a matter of trying to keep up with dinner table conversations and trying to understand the Big Bang. I think we took solace in the fact that music was somehow more comprehensible.

Simon: And an important thing that also connects us is that our better halves are very creative people. My fiancé is a wonderful painter (Loribelle Spirovski), and of course you’re married to the SSO’s Chief Conductor and Artistic Director David Robertson. How do you find your relationship has impacted on your musical life?

Orli: Many musicians choose to partner with non-musicians. There’s a certain stability in you being the free, creative, not regularly salaried member of the family and the other is very stable and brings in the steady pay cheque. And, in the case of America – the one that provides you with health insurance! But there’s also the other way, and this happens quite frequently, where one person in the arts finds another person in the arts and you feed off of each other in this incredible way and you learn so much from the other person’s perspective. When David comes home and he’s all excited about what the SSO has done this week and the Mahler 3 they’re preparing ... that carries through so much in my own way of viewing music and what I’m doing.

Simon: I’m absolutely the same. Loribelle currently has an amazing exhibition literally called ‘Proxy’ because all the paintings are of me, which could make me very self-centred (you wouldn’t hear that from a pianist – jokes). But they are all actually paintings of her, but using my face and incorporating different states, and that says a great deal about the relationship between two artists. We actually work in the same room together, which you think would drive her nuts – especially with the Rach 4! – but we both feed on it.

Orli: I have to tell you that when David and I are home, we work as far away from each other as possible! [laughs]

Simon: Give us another 20 years!

Simon: I’m going to finish with a question I often get asked but I think will resonate even more with people here because we all love piano so much. What’s the funniest thing that ever happened to you on stage?

Orli: I don’t know about you, but I never forget a bad piano. I was in a small town in Wyoming and we were greeted at the airport by the local cowboy who was taking us to the hall and he was making some weird jokes ... and already everything seemed odd. We got to the concert hall and it had the kind of piano you hear in saloons. It was a Grand but it hadn’t been tuned in at least 100 years and most of the keys seemed to be functioning but a few had things that would hurt your finger if you pressed down too hard. We decided to go ahead... but as I was playing the pedal just came right off [laughs]. That was definitely a Stop the Concert moment.

Simon: Oh no! Disastrous. Mine is perhaps not quite as traumatic. I assume you have played [Gershwin’s] Rhapsody in Blue – there is this bit right at the end where the whole orchestra and the piano are playing these chords right before the final climax and you have to get it together. When you play it with the band and orchestra right after the final chord there’s this snare drum sound. In my case in the live performance he missed it and there was just this pregnant pause and... sh*^!

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