By Bernard Holland

While aspiring pianists vainly butt their heads against the walls of the artist management agencies along 57th Street in New York, Christian Steiner has become a performer of notice by the most amiable and circuitous of routes: taking pictures. He is the eminent photographer of musicians, and a soft-spoken New Yorker whose depictions of Herbert von Karajan, Maria Callas, Birgit Nilsson, Mirella Freni and Placido Domingo have become powerful silent partners in the world of concerts and recordings.

At 5 P.M on Sunday, however, Mr. Steiner will accompany the soprano Jessye Norman in a recital at the Mount Lebanon Shaker Village, several hours north of New York City. It is a benefit for a new summer series, the Tannery Pond Concerts. With Christina Wirth and an active board, Mr. Steiner plans the concerts, books the artists, designs the brochures and worries about new cushions to soften the stern Shaker benches on which his new clientele will sit.

When he wants someone of Miss Norman’s stature to sing for 350 people in rural New York, and at a lower fee than usual, Mr. Steiner said the other day, he simply asks them. “They find the whole thing light-hearted and amusing,” he said.

“I have photographed so many artists they are my friends.”

Not Quite Laughable Fees

Tannery Pond Concerts is a newly broken-off splinter of a 15 year-old series at nearby Spencertown Academy. In an upstairs hall seating 175, chamber music overseen by Mr. Steiner had been part of a larger mixture of theater, folk music and jazz. Mr. Steiner said he hopes the new home in New Lebanon, New York, will double sales. This, along with some fund raising by Mr. Steiner to offer his musician friends fees that they at least won’t laugh at.

This year’s concerts have already included the violinist Chee-Yun, the pianist Charles Wadsworth and five members of the Berlin Philharmonic Octet. (The three others were busy playing with the orchestra in Carnegie Hall). After Ms. Norman come Sergei Babayan, the young Soviet pianist (July 27), the cellist Nathaniel Rosen and the pianist Pavlina Dokovska (Aug.17) and the Emerson String Quartet (Sept 21).

Mr. Steiner has played the piano since his childhood in Berlin. His father and four uncles were eminent musicians; two brothers, a cellist and a violist, are members of the Berlin Philharmonic. Brought to the attention of Claudio Arrau at the age of 19, Mr. Steiner, now 52, came to New York and studied with Frank Sheridan, Edward Steurmann and Nadia Reisenberg. He won competitions at home and toured Germany as a soloist. What he calls a “psychological breakdown” brought his playing to a halt in 1964. “The harder I worked, “he said, “the harder it became.” After a performance of the Mozart D minor Concerto in Hamburg in 1964, he closed the piano, he thought, for good.

‘I Got through It ‘

After four years of silence, Mr. Steiner was persuaded by Earl Wild to record two-piano repertory with him and a solo collection as well. Nine more years passed before Mr. Steiner played again. “Joanna Simon, the singer, asked me to accompany her Symphony Space in 1978,” he said. “My hands shook, but it was easy music and I got through it.”

Photography was an accident. “When I stopped playing, I thought of engineering or interior design,” Mr. Steiner said. “A friend said. ‘You take nice pictures.’ I spent three months in another friend’s studio learning, and then he threw me out. It wasn’t that photography at the time so appealed to me. I felt awful, and if someone had handed me a broom and said, ‘Become a street sweeper,’ I would have.

“I began in fashion, and then I started taking pictures of friends – Thomas Schippers and Charles Wadsworth. Then Columbia Artists called, and then EMI Records.”

Mr. Steiner traveled to Salzburg, Austria, and Paris at the call of Karajan and Callas, but most of his dramatic photographs are made in a studio the size of a spare bedroom.

The last year has largely been taken up with pictures of the late Mr.Arrau, who was keenly conscious that he had brought Mr. Steiner to America.

Hired Unheard

Mr. Steiner seldom plays the piano. “I only practice when I have a date, and I get dates in the strangest ways, “he said. “Kent Nagano, the conductor, talked about inviting me during a photo session. Then two years passed and he called. As a result, I played the Mozart D minor with him in Berkeley and with Enrique Diemecke in Mexico City. I asked them, ‘How can you hire me? You’ve never heard me play.’ Their answer was, ‘We just knew you could .’”

So what about photography and the piano?” The second revitalizes the first,” he said.” I love people and getting to know them when I take their pictures. As to the playing, I have been having two or three concerts a year. I can’t imagine doing any more.”

Perhaps Mr. Steiner has learned the lesson that eludes as many of his contemporaries: that growth is not necessarily progress and that more is not always better. Meanwhile he is learning the chamber music he never had a chance to play as a child.