This article was published in Balkan Insight on May 3, 2019.
by Derek Dzinich
SIT Spring 2019
The Vrbanec family have been running the Pianoland company for four generations – helping to keep the region’s classical music tradition alive in what have often been very tough times.
A thunderous, rippling sound echoes through the Kolarac concert hall in Belgrade, Serbia, as two pianists playing in perfect sync race down a chromatic scale.
That sound is music to the ears of top piano distributor, tuner and restorer Boris Vrbanec, of Pianoland Belgrade.
A long-time fixture of the Belgrade music community, Pianoland distributes pianos, restores old instruments and carries out such vital services as tuning and training new piano technicians.
A family business, the company spans four generations, Vrbanec explains in a brief pause between engagements.
“My sister Ana handles the concert season and public relations, my wife handles the administrative duties, and I am a multifunctioning device,” he jests.
After attending music high school in Belgrade, Vrbanec went on to receive a degree in piano and a Europiano technical degree.
Now 47 years old, Pianoland has been in Belgrade for all of Vrbanec’s life, although business has not always been booming.
Serbia and the wider region have seen their full share of instability in recent decades.
In times of war and economic downturn, the buying and maintaining of expensive and prestigious musical instruments has not been seen as a priority for most people.
But Vrbanec says the market for both new and restored pianos is highly unstable in Europe in general, not just in Serbia and the Balkans.
According to data from the yearly meeting of Steinway dealers, annual sales of all pianos in Europe currently stand at a modest 15,000 compared to 25,000 in the Americas and a staggering 250,000 in Asia.
But this high degree of market volatility has only encouraged Pianoland to work that much harder to adapt to the times.
Tuning is a major part of the business. “Boris is the best piano tuner in all of Belgrade,” says Stefan Cvetkovic, the public relations representative for the top pianist Ivo Pogorelic.
Pianoland services pianos for seven schools in Serbia, four in Croatia, and two in Bosnia and Hercegovina.
Despite the immense energy required for such a rigorous travel schedule, Vrbanec relishes his work and continues to find new and innovative ways to engage with the musical community.
One of these new engagements draws on Pianoland’s status as a local distributor of Steinway instruments, and its long partnership with the historic Kolarac concert hall in Belgrade.
The hall, built in the early 1930s and located along the park at Studenski Trg in central Belgrade, is well known for its intimate atmosphere and fine acoustics.
The Steinway artists concert series, inaugurated last October, is bringing a new caliber of musicians to Belgrade.
Already up for an award for best concert of 2018, the series has brought together an interesting community of music-lovers.
From a vantage point high in the gallery of Kolarac, a wide array of fans can be seen arriving for a concert.
“We have a portion of the intellectual elite, but also children, families, and interested listeners in general,” Vrbanec says, describing the usual audience.
The relaxed atmosphere of a smaller hall contributes to a certain relaxed feeling that is unique, he adds.
Ana Vrbanec, his sister, dressed in an elegant black gown, hosts cocktail parties after concerts at which the audience can freely engage with the artist.
“I think there is something altruistic for Serbia in these concerts,” says businessman Bojan Cukovic, “because Serbia has a tradition in classical music, but it is not well known.”
Vrbanec is certain that the future of Pianoland should lie in Belgrade, despite the market ups and downs.
During the difficult times of the 1990s, he had a chance to relocate the business to New York.
Vrbanec thought long and hard. “I had the opportunity to go to the United States in 1995, but I chose to remain here,” he reflects.
This decision to remain has since worked well for Pianoland, due in part to Vrbanec’s innovative spirit.
Future plans include founding the first school for piano technicians in the western Balkan region.
Currently, Boris is training the first female piano tuner in Belgrade.
Derek Dzinich is a student of the SIT Study Abroad Program Serbia, Bosnia and Kosovo: Peace and Conflict Studies in the Balkans. This story was written as an assignment at program’s Journalism track.