Pianist Rachel Kaufman: Played the "Casablanca" piano at the auction – "I cried a little"

17. Dezember 2012 - 10:15 Uhr

The piano from the movie classic "Casablanca" was auctioned at Sotheby’s in New York last week. Before the instrument went to an unnamed collector for over $ 600.000, pianist Rachel Kaufman played "As Time Goes By" on it once more. It may sound like a well calculated idea of the auctioneers. But less than 48 hours before the auction, Kaufman had no idea of her engagement yet, as she told the Berlin-based news magazine musik heute. (für die deutsche Version hier klicken)

musik heute: What was it like to play this piano?

Rachel Kaufman

Rachel Kaufman: It was something magical to play it, knowing all of its history, and knowing how special this movie is to so many people. It was slightly constraining to play on such a small piano (58 keys instead of 88), but I was fine with that. As I finished playing the song at the auction, I cried a little, I was so overwhelmed with emotion.

musik heute: How did you get engaged by Sotheby’s?

Rachel Kaufman: That’s actually an interesting story – immediately preceding the auction with the piano, there was a longer auction with books/documents/art that I was interested in because there in that auction was a group of illustrated letters that Peanuts creator Charles Schulz had sent to his mistress. I have always loved Schulz’s work & love all kinds of cartooning & comic strips, so I went to Sotheby’s two days before the auction to read through these letters before they were sold. When I got there, I saw the Casablanca piano on the 2nd floor of Sotheby’s, which I hadn’t known was also for sale. After spending an hour or so going through the letters, I asked someone at Sotheby’s if I could please try the piano, and told them I was a professional pianist. They allowed me, I played As Time Goes By on it, while one of the people who’d catalogued the exhibit sang it with me, and after we talked a bit, he said something like "Wouldn’t it be great if we had you play the piano at the auction?", and I was thrilled. The rest is history!

musik heute: When was that?

Rachel Kaufman: I went to view the Schulz letters on Wednesday afternoon, but the possibility of me playing the piano at the auction wasn’t confirmed until 5:30pm EST on Thursday night, less than 24 hours beforehand. (editor’s note: The auction took place at 11:00am EST on Friday morning.)

musik heute: That’s not much time to prepare your performance. What did you do?

Rachel Kaufman: I first played the song over the phone for my aunt, and she told me to play it more romantically. I then watched YouTube clips from the movie & studied the way it was played there, listened to a few other versions online, and then ran my adapted version by more people over the phone as the night progressed. In the end, everyone seemed to like what I was doing, so I felt ready.

Rachel Kaufman

musik heute: The instrument sounds quite untuned. As a professionell pianist, would you say it can be restored or is it more a piece of decoration?

Rachel Kaufman: I would think that it’s more of a piece of decoration, but I like its out-of-tune "honky-tonk" sound. I would imagine it could be tuned, though I don’t know if there’s any irreparable damage inside the piano – I was surprised as to how good it was, actually. I thought it had a good feel, and a nice, bright sound.

musik heute: Would you buy this piano?

Rachel Kaufman: If I was a millionaire & had a special connection to that movie, then maybe, but if I were to spend a lot of money on a piano, I’d buy a great Bosendorfer or Steinway, neither of which would be nearly as expensive as the Casablanca piano was. I think if I was a millionaire, I’d buy one of Billy Joel or Elton John’s pianos, or something that Fats Waller or Scott Joplin played, because those are my piano heroes.

musik heute: Where do you play the piano when you’re not with Sotheby’s?

Rachel Kaufman: I mostly make my living as a music director and accompanist in the musical theater and cabaret worlds in NYC. I started off my career playing at piano bars & restaurants in NYC, where "As Time Goes By" is a pre-requiste song to know for the job. I also play at churches (piano & organ), for private parties, and I also play about 20 other instruments, on which I also occasionally do gigs.

(Questions by Wieland Aschinger.)

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