Tahira Yaqoob talks to Vincent Corver, concert pianist and manager of the Steinway Piano Gallery in Qatar, about performing, the appreciation of classical music in the Middle East and an attention-grabbing grand piano.
Concert pianist wants to spark interest in classical music in the Gulf
The tattered notice pinned to the board barely stood out among the flyers advertising music shops, instruments for sale and gruelling timetables.
"Are you interested in selling pianos?" it read. "Come to the Harrods piano department."
Desperate for cash to fund his music studies, Vincent Corver spied it among the clutter and wasted no time in tearing it down and stuffing it in his pocket.
Three days later, he was hired as a salesman in the famous London department store - and the part-time job intended to make ends meet changed the course of his life.
Corver, 31, first dreamt of becoming a concert pianist at the age of six and has gone on to perform with his London Steve Reich Ensemble around the world.
He has collaborated with Michael Jackson's producer and could be in line for a Grammy award for his musical compositions when nominations are announced next month.
But as a struggling musician who had studied the instrument for 12 years, he knew the challenges of turning his passion into a lifelong career.
That part-time post in Harrods in 2004 gave him a grounding in sales and, with something of an entrepreneurial spirit, he opened his own piano store in Lucerne, Switzerland, in 2008 before landing his current job as manager of the Steinway Piano Gallery in Qatar, the only official outlet run by Steinway & Sons in the Middle East.
The piano maker has been turning out handcrafted pianos since 1853, when its founder Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg first arrived in New York from his native Germany.
Many musicians have sworn by Steinway's superior sound over the years, from composers Sergei Rachmaninoff and Cole Porter to contemporaries such as Alicia Keys, Billy Joel and Sir Elton John. Some refuse to play on anything else.
That one of the oldest piano manufacturers in the world has set up a base in the GCC, where an appreciation of classical music is still in its infancy, is somewhat startling.
But if anyone can persuade Qataris to invest up to Dh12 million in one of the instruments, it is Doha's own Piano Man.
"I find the business side of things almost as interesting as the musical side," Corver says earnestly. "To actually communicate to people about music is a very exciting thing to do. You have to use your brain and not just your heart and say: 'How can I make this interesting for someone?'."
He has his work cut out. Sales of Steinway grand pianos worldwide plummeted by 50 per cent after the 2008 recession, and one-third of its employees were laid off from the New York factory in a year.
Steinway began looking farther afield to the Middle East, where investors were in abundance, but where a knowledge of classical music was lacking.
Corver, a Dutchman, was the perfect choice.
Having studied at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague from the age of 12 and as a master of music graduate from the Royal Academy of Music in London, he had the passion and know-how.
And with his attempts at his own start-up, he had already delved into the business of inspiring a similar fervour in others.
When any potential customers first set foot in the Doha store - many out of curiosity more than a desire to buy - the first thing Corver does is play for them.
If they show an interest, he invites them into his practice room, where he promises to teach them the basics in just four hours for Dh2,000. More than 100 Qataris have registered and 20 are taking lessons.
"It is not about bringing the piano to Qatar but bringing Qatar to the piano," says Corver. "You teach them how to play and hopefully they will want to buy an instrument and practise themselves at home.
"That is what the showroom is about. It is a reverse strategy."
Corver knew from a young age that he wanted to play the piano for the rest of his life.
"I never saw myself as doing anything else, but I did become more realistic," he says.
"There are a lot of musicians who lock themselves in their rooms and become very antisocial and obsessed with playing the piano.
"In their studies at conservatoires and musical academies across the world, they are rewarded for being antisocial, which is a big problem in professional music education because when school finishes, they fall in a huge hole.
"They have no idea how to present or promote themselves, how to communicate with people and no clue what to do.
"There are hundreds of thousands of pianist graduates around the globe graduating every year who think the phone is going to ring, but it never does."
Corver was one of the masses when he graduated at 26. He had already been working at Harrods for three years while studying in London and realised making a living from his first love was not going to be straightforward.
"I was living in a tiny room and thought: 'I have got to do something besides playing the piano'," he says.
So he created the London Steve Reich Ensemble, named after the Grammy award-winning composer, made up of 18 fellow graduates from the Royal Academy. The ensemble has played at concerts around the world, including the Cheltenham Music Festival and Duke's Hall in the UK, the Orpheus Festival in Zurich's Tonhalle and the Schonbergsaal in the Netherlands.
The ensemble, which has also produced two albums and is signed to EMI Classics, comes with the blessing of Reich, who has described them as an "outstanding group of young musicians [with] a superb feel for how to play my music … these performances pulse with life".
Even its formation involved Corver using some entrepreneurial acumen, launching a website and organising bookings before any musicians had signed up.
"I just worked backwards," he says. "If you create the end result first, you always know what the first step is."
The store in Doha opened a year ago, among designer boutiques and high-end restaurants in The Pearl.
Inside he sits patiently, waiting for customers to marvel at the highly polished and intricately carved black lacquered maplewood specimens on display.
There has been a flurry of interest in an available-to-order Dh12m grand piano entirely covered in six million Swarovski crystals, painstakingly attached by hand.
While there are no firm orders, five customers have expressed an interest and the London-based firm Crystal Rocked - which has previously crystallised microphones for Kylie Minogue and the Pussycat Dolls - has made a miniature version as a sample.
Project director Shariff El Rafaey says: "It is aimed at the elite luxury buyer - those who generally have everything money can buy."
Are the pianos not simply sitting in Qatari living rooms as extravagant accessories? Corver says not.
"These are not people who never want the piano to be played," he says.
Orders have come in from around the Middle East, including the UAE, but selling pianos has been tough, he admits.
He refuses to say how many have been sold since the shop opened a year ago but says expatriates do not want to invest, as they want to save money and the instruments are awkward to transport, while Qataris are still learning an appreciation of classical music.
That is changing with the opening in 2011 of Qatar Music Academy, which offers free music lessons to nationals and subsidised tuition to expats. Meanwhile, regular concerts now take place in a new opera house in the Katara cultural quarter. Is it making an impact?
"Every piano takes an effort to be sold," says Corver. "I do not think concert venues inspire people to play themselves. It is about education and you cannot do that impassively from a concert stage."
Of late, though, the pianist has found himself back on stage. Last month, in an outdoor show on The Pearl, he performed Piano Counterpoint, his reworking of Reich's Six Pianos, which has seen him put forward by EMI Classics for a Grammy award. He will find out next month if he is one of the final five nominees.
Earlier this year, he was asked to play at the inaugural Qatar Choice Awards for the hospitality and entertainment industry. He reworked Michael Jackson tracks with classical music in a tribute to his role model.
Together with the collaborative work he is doing with Jackson's producer Giorgio Tuinfort - a childhood friend who has also worked with David Guetta and Whitney Houston - it means things have come full circle.
Back when he was a Harrods salesman, he remembers the late pop star slipping in with his children after hours and browsing the aisles to stock up on CDs.
"I shook his hand and then without being asked, I sat down at the piano and played We Are The World," he recalls.
"It was an amazing experience. The music I am writing is different, but it relates to his music. He is my main inspiration and I have always found it important to inspire people - it is how you change lives."
Tahira Yaqoob is a former senior features writer for The National.