Selecting a Steinway
July 16, 2009
A shiny Steinway now stands on-stage for every Aspen Music Festival venue. It is difficult to imagine that during its first few decades the festival found neither the funding to own one nor a suitable place to park a piano for the winter.Nearly all top pianists are Steinway artists, performing and recording exclusively on pianos built by Steinway & Sons. Although Baldwin piano artists were rare, in the beginning Baldwin was the official piano of the festival. The significance of that endorsement was lost on audiences who noted the Baldwin advertising in the weekly festival program guides, but paid scant attention to piano brand names during performances.Soloists all performed with a Steinway, but whenever orchestral compositions required a piano the Baldwin was used. Students also used the Baldwin concert grand piano for their concert performances. Limited rehearsal time confined bonding with the Baldwin to a superficial relationship.The concert grand Baldwins were trucked to the festival along with a couple hundred uprights for practice rooms and faculty houses. They emerged brand new, right out of the shipping cases, even though new pianos are not favored by talented musicians. Hours of playing, multiple tunings and lots of attention from a skilled technician earn a piano’s position as a cherished musical companion.The performance piano for the Tent (only one for many years and then two) came from what is known as the Steinway piano bank. Steinway Hall, before Carnegie Hall opened, was constructed as both a showroom for Steinway & Sons pianos and as a performance hall. Audiences passed through the showroom to access the hall, which increased sales dramatically.In New York City, Steinway’s 57th Street building’s basement houses the piano bank, a collection of the best of the best Steinway concert grands. Because each piano varies in keyboard action and sound quality, individual artists disagree about which piano is superior. Each year a different faculty member/performer was selected to choose the season’s Steinway. There were two or three favorite Steinways that made repeat trips to Aspen. Piano bank Steinways were identified by a number stenciled in gold on the piano lid. At their first rehearsal, guest artists could be heard commenting like they might in greeting a favorite acquaintance: “Old 55, I love this piano.”As the piano bank collection was used by many artists in concerts all across America, the finish of each became nicked and scratched. Edges lost their sharpness. Piano legs, frequently attached and removed for shipment, approached wobbliness. Hours of work by skilled technicians kept the instruments at their performance peak.The annual harbinger of the opening of the festival occurred when the semi arrived from New York. The job of moving the grand pianos was entrusted to only a few pairs of drivers. Often the semi would arrive almost empty. Those drivers moved only Steinway grands and IBM mainframe computers. The two drivers loaded and unloaded the 1,300-pound behemoths. Today crews of muscled men maneuver the pianos, but two of yesterday’s experienced moving men could roll a concert grand out of a truck and assemble it in a matter of minutes. Selection of the Steinway provides a small festival footnote, but perhaps knowing the lengths the festival goes to provide the perfect piano will make the music that much more enjoyable.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while a teacher for Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.