Pianist Bilson returns to Chautauqua with ‘new’ old piano



Malcolm Bilson is a doctor of sorts. In the music world, he’s revived many instruments from the dead. One piano, in particular, will sing again for the first time in nearly 200 years.

“This is going to be its maiden voyage,” Bilson said. “This will be the first time that this piano has been heard in concert since the 1830s — or whenever it was last played.”

Bilson will give a piano recital at 4 p.m. today in Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall that will benefit the Chautauqua Women’s Club Scholarship Fund. He will play Franz Schubert’s Sonata in E-flat major, D. 568; Waldszenen, Op. 82, by Robert Schumann; and Frédéric Chopin’s Nocturne in D-flat major, Op. 27 No. 2, and Waltz in A-flat major, Op. 34 No. 2. In addition, Bilson will deliver a lecture prior to the recital at 2:30 p.m. in Lenna Hall.

“I’m going to be playing Schubert and Schumann and Chopin — early- to mid-19th-century Romantic music,” Bilson said. “These composers wrote for pianos like this and not for Steinways.”

John Milbauer, interim co-director of the Piano Program, said Bilson’s experience with antique instruments inspired a discussion of what the intention was of composers in the 18th and 19th centuries.

“In his pre-concert lecture, he speaks about music in a way that is incredibly lucid and enlightening and probing,” Milbauer said. “When you’re playing music that’s 300 years old, there’s an oral assumption of how it should sound, and that sound gets distorted over the years.”

Last year, Bilson brought with him a modern construction of 18th-century piano, and he arrived with it in the back of his car. This year, he’ll be bringing a restored 19th-century Viennese piano built by Wilhelm Leschen in 1825.

“It’s an antique, and the opportunity to hear a piano from 1825 in good shape is a rare one,” Milbauer said.

Bilson said a student of his had found the antique piano for sale 15 years ago in Italy. It was undervalued, and Bilson was able to snag it, bring it back to America and have it restored.

“We looked it up in one of the encyclopedias of that day, and it said, ‘Wilhelm Leschen is the greatest piano builder in Vienna.’ And of course everybody was a little astonished at that,” Bilson said.

Although Bilson is known throughout the world for his work with antique pianos, the pianist is just as gifted on a modern instrument, Milbauer said. Challenging the work and the music is, regardless, a vital part of being a musician, he said.

“If you go through a life in music not questioning what you’re doing, you will not experience music as fully as you should,” Milbauer said. “In some cases, that means a confrontation — it’s really about the understanding.”