A leap into the light

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 January, 2012, 12:00am

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The challenge of interviewing classical pianist Paul Cibis lies in ferreting out a core storyline from such a multi-faceted artist: should it be the German's achievements as a solo recitalist, an accompanist, the creator of Piano Battle, his elevation of a piano tuner to the silver screen, his expertise on physical problems that plague performers, or The Story in Mind, the CD he released in Hong Kong recently?

Cibis is already known to many in the city as an accompanist for local chanteuse Eva Meier, through their performances on RTHK and for Le French May and other arts festivals. He reckons to have averaged three visits each year to Hong Kong since 2005 and hopes to increase his profile in the region further.

'I see so many opportunities here, so much interest,' he says.

When we spoke three years ago, Cibis was about to introduce his Piano Battle, a zany duel between two serious pianists, to a modestly sized audience at the Hong Kong Fringe Club's City Festival.

The show pits Cibis against another pianist in a light-hearted entertainment that blends performances of classical repertoire with challenges in improvisation. There's an interactive artistic role for the audience, who have to vote for their preferred performer of the evening; there's also a seriousness behind the fun. Piano Battle has since played to packed houses in both Taiwan and on the mainland, as well as across Europe.

'I'm interested in creating something ... which doesn't have this high, sacred attitude of the very traditional, conservative music scene,' Cibis says. 'I've always tried to treat my work like that, keeping the quality of classical music but making it even more accessible so that people lose the hesitation to try it out if they're not familiar with it.'

It was a similar niche, and not a pot of gold, that Cibis and Taiwanese composer Huang Kai-nan were seeking with The Story in Mind. 'Hardly anybody makes money from CDs,' says Cibis, a classically trained musician who holds a degree in musicology and philosophy. 'You're lucky to break even.'

The intent was to produce an easy listening piano compilation that treads its own path, while inevitably running the risk of an occasional whiff of Richard Clayderman. Cibis understands that people might imagine the music going in that direction, but in using only an acoustic piano, without backing from drums and synthesised sounds, he believes that Huang's music stakes a claim for itself in the light classical piano field. The Taiwanese record label that signed them thought so, too.

'I think they also liked the combination of a Chinese composer with a Western pianist, especially for the Taiwan market,' Cibis says.

Educated in Hanover, Berlin and London, he graduated from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, studying with Graham Johnson and Eugene Asti. From 2005 to 2009, Cibis taught at Trinity College of Music in London and also conducted lieder workshops at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. He now regularly gives workshops and masterclasses for pianists in Germany, Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong and on the mainland. His CD recordings include an album of French melodies and piano works by Hector Berlioz, Gabriel Faure and Claude Debussy, with German mezzo-soprano Barbara Senator.

Huang and Cibis met through the work of Peter Feuchtwanger, Cibis' teacher in London. Huang, who also studied in England, was interested in the keyboard exercises Feuchtwanger had developed to address physical strain injuries encountered by pianists, such as tendinitis and tennis elbow; Cibis arranged an introduction, and their friendship grew. One of Feuchtwanger's other concerns has been focal dystonia, a motor problem for the fingers triggered by too much practising.

'It's a problem quite a lot of pianists have suffered from, like [American] Gary Graffman,' Cibis says. 'Those suffering from it would not want to talk about it.'

Cibis was also instrumental in raising the lid on another behind-the-scenes issue for high-profile pianists: the crucial role of a good tuner. For two years he tried to initiate a documentary on the life of Stefan Kn?pfer, a senior technician for Steinway pianos. 'I knew him through my own work and my instrument at home, and was always fascinated by his charisma, his passion for his job,' Cibis says.

He eventually succeeded in getting the project off the ground: Pianomania was the result, the 2009 award-winning documentary directed and produced by his elder brother, Robert Cibis. It features pianists Lang Lang, Alfred Brendel and Pierre-Laurent Aimard as Kn?pfer's clients, who present him with their specialised challenges for performance and recording situations. British newspaper The Guardian praised the documentary for its 'high elegance and exactitude. An excellent film'.

In the context of this versatility, it was hardly surprising to find Cibis at the Kee Club promoting the Hong Kong release of his CD alongside sand painter Hoi Chiu, whom he accompanied with a selection of tracks from the disc and works by Debussy and Frederic Chopin. When I suggested that this facility for delivering the lighter touch and immediate charm of classical music for a wider audience seems to merit comparison not so much with Clayderman, but more with Felix Mendelssohn, Cibis smiled and replied: 'I'm happy with that comparison.'