The grand piano chase

Tracing the journey of a child prodigy through the instruments he played along the way

Published - November 08, 2017 04:58 pm IST

Lydian Nadhaswaram began performing on the drums when he was two years old. At eight, entirely self-taught, he stunned others by playing Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt within months of first touching a piano key. Today, this 12-year-old son of music director Sathish Varshan plays 14 musical instruments — some standard and some used in folk music, such as the kanjira and the thappatai .

The young Chennai musician is adept at the guitar, highly proficient on the tabla and mridangam , and a master of the Western drums. But he is the undisputed king of the piano.

Going places

Though teachers like Augustine Paul, music director, Madras Musical Association and Surojeet Chatterji, head, Russian Piano Studio, KM College of Music and Technology have guided him, Nadhaswaram has expanded — and continues to expand — his repertoire largely by himself, learning compositions he likes.

As Nadhaswaram’s reputation as a musical prodigy spread, invitations to perform came from various parts of India, as well as the US, Australia, and Malaysia. He recently returned from Argentina; having thus performed on four continents.

At the rehearsal for NBC’s television show Siempre Niños in Miami, Nadhaswaram noticed a string on the Baldwin grand piano produced an extraneous metallic sound. It had escaped the attention of all the studio technicians. In an hour, the producer provided Nadhaswaram a brand new Yamaha C3 grand, straight from the showroom.

Nadhaswaram was such a hit that Siempre Niños invited him back, and this time, he played a Vivace grand. “The top lid, though wooden, was so light even a four-year-old lifted it,” he marvelled.

With his musician sister Amirthavarshini, Nadhaswaram also won scholarships to the International Music Seminars summer camp on Long Island, New York, for talented child musicians from across the world. Here, Nadhaswaram played on two Yamaha grands: the C7 and the C3. “Both are excellent pianos,” he said, quickly adding, “but not quite Steinways.”

A taste of the dream

Nadhaswaram’s dream piano is the Steinway grand, the Rolls-Royce of pianos. After Miami, Nadhaswaram visited New York and dropped into the company headquarters, Steinway Hall. In the room where visitors could try out the pianos, Nadhaswaram played a Model A. His flawless recital bowled over the showroom manager, who proclaimed, “That was superb, young man! Please follow me,” and led Nadhaswaram to the gigantic Model D concert grand, the top of Steinway’s piano line.

Nadhaswaram was elevated to giddy heights as he played Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’. “This piano had a different feel, even from the other Steinways,” he recalls, “The sound quality, the touch, and the return were all so good — what a joy to play it.”

Back at home, Nadhaswaram played on an old Samick upright piano for five years. An upright has limitations: the key return is slower than a grand; the notes play unevenly over time; a pianist’s control over volume is limited. The talented Nadhaswaram, familiar with a variety of quality instruments from his overseas trips, truly needed a grand piano, but the sheer cost put it out of his reach.

If he could have any piano but a Steinway, which would he choose? “The Bösendorfer grand,” he says, without a second thought. He’s never played one, but it always sounded glorious in the recordings he’d heard. And it has 93- and 97-key models in addition to the standard 88.

While watching a pianist play, we don’t see the piano’s hidden machinery. Similarly, Nadhaswaram was unaware of the drama unfolding in the background. In 2016, he was invited to the first TED talk in India, called TED Talks India: Nayi Soch, with Shah Rukh Khan as host and Juliet Blake (New York-based Curator of TED Special Projects) as Executive Producer. Blake, highly impressed by Nadhaswaram, arranged for him to play at a music salon in New York, organised by financier Michael Novogratz. Novogratz, equally enchanted, lifted Nadhaswaram onto his shoulder and declared that he would gift him a Steinway. Nadhaswaram assumed he was kidding, but it was still the stuff of sweet dreams for the child.

But Novogratz wasn’t joking. In a magnificent gesture of philanthropy, he shipped a Steinway baby grand for Nadhaswaram by air to Chennai — all on the basis of one performance.

Last month, Nadhaswaram appeared on the Susana Giménez TV show in Argentina. The show, viewed by millions in South America, is often compared to America’s The Oprah Winfrey Show .

“It was exciting, because it’s the first time I’ve appeared live on international television,” Nadhaswaram says. They had offered him an electronic piano, but he insisted on a top-notch acoustic one and got it: a Steinway Model M grand. Knowing that his audience was culturally Spanish, he played ‘Asturias’, a famous composition in the flamenco tradition by the Spanish pianist Isaac Albéniz.

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