Pianists can spend as much as twelve hours a day with their instrument. In an arrangement that intimate, picking the right “partner” is crucial. So it’s no surprise that when members of the NEC piano faculty go shopping for a new Steinway, they use words that you might expect from the Sex and the City gals. A shorter version of this conversation appeared in the Winter 2010 edition of NEC's Notes magazine.
Late in 2009, just in time for the holidays, NEC bought itself a beautiful present—a new Steinway grand piano for Williams Hall. This was the second piano purchase of the year, following upon the important acquisition of a new Steinway for Jordan Hall in May. The two instruments were acquired with $200,000 raised in the Piano Challenge that was a highlight of last year’s Feast of Music scholarship gala. Trustee Nancy Noble Holland ’95 M.M. contributed $100,000 from her family foundation, the Donald and Alice Noble Foundation, on condition that NEC match it. Thanks to the advocacy of Trustees Wendy Shattuck ’75, Jane Manopoli Patterson, and Board of Visitors member Katie Schuller-Bleakie, the challenge was met.
Then, the critical job of choosing the instruments fell to NEC’s College piano department chair Bruce Brubaker and two groups of College and Preparatory faculty who auditioned Steinways on two visits to the factory in Queens, New York. In the case of the Jordan Hall instrument, the selection process was particularly consequential: the piano chosen would be used not only by NEC musicians but by the many guest artists who perform in the hall. In a way, the faculty members were choosing a piano for the city of Boston. They were certainly serving as surrogates for the many artistic personalities likely to play on the piano.
So, what to look for? And how to agree?
“I look for a sound that speaks to me, that I love,” said Gabriel Chodos, who attended both auditions. Which qualities spark that love are, of course, different for every musician. Some prefer a brighter or more brilliant tone. Others like Veronica Jochum, who was part of the May selection group, want a piano that “sings.” One person’s “brilliance” may strike another as “piercing.” One pianist’s “mellowness” may seem “tubby” to other ears, a quality Chodos defines as “fat, dumpy and unappealing.”
Wha Kyung Byun
Then, there are considerations about how a piano will sound in the hall for which it’s intended. Extrapolating from factory showroom to Jordan Hall or Williams Hall is at best guesswork. But the musicians were certainly thinking about it.
“Jordan Hall has a lot of resonance,” said Wha Kyung Byun, who along with her husband, Russell Sherman, took part in the Jordan Hall piano selection. “The hall is good for singing and strings. With a piano, you need something with a little ping, with a penetrating sound.” Yet, “you don’t want something that is very bright to start out with because it might get unpleasant over time,” Brubaker said.
“I kept feeling and thinking that I want a sound that melts into the acoustic quality of Jordan Hall,” Veronica Jochum said. “While you want a piano that is powerful, you don’t need as much power in Jordan Hall as you might in Symphony Hall.”
With this in mind, she had initially favored another instrument that was more mellow in tone. However, others preferred the more brilliant piano that was eventually chosen. Chodos felt the final selection was more truly representative of the “richness of tone” that distinguishes the best Steinways. And Byun believed the ultimate choice offered greater adaptability because “a more chamber music-like instrument can never be made to speak” more assertively while a brighter piano “can be molded” to the acoustic environment.
In choosing the Williams Hall piano, which is used exclusively for solo or small ensemble performances, the auditioners felt the piano could be more soft-spoken than the one intended for Jordan. “You don’t need a piano that can cut through a huge orchestral texture because concertos are never performed in that room,” Bruce Brubaker said.
Registration, Action, Pedals, Time, Love
For both pianos, a critical aspect of the sonority is the evenness of tone from bass to treble. An even registration is essential, Byun said. The sound should be like a perfectly matched set of pearls from top to bottom of the keyboard. “No one side should be heavier than the other,” she said. “Every piano has specific issues of registration or regularity,” Brubaker added. Usually, a technician is on hand at auditions and can make adjustments to individual notes. This offers reassurance that “you can make the piano sound the way you want it,” he said, adding that any new piano probably needs 30 to 40 hours of finishing work after it is purchased and installed in its new home.
The keyboard action and pedal responsiveness are also important concerns. A pianist wants a “responsive action,” Byun said. What that means exactly can be very personal. Some prefer a light action—keys that depress easily. Others prefer something heavier; they “like to fight it.” Byun also likes some “resilience” in the key, some “spring,” but not so much that the hand “bounces up.”
As for the pedals, “you need many many levels,” she said, which allow the pianist many gradations in effects.
Fascinatingly, all the pianos the artists tried differed considerably in each of these aspects—despite the fact that they are constructed according to the same design template. Why should there be so much difference between individual instruments? Chodos acknowledged that there seems to be a bit of alchemy or mystery involved. “I’ve asked myself that question dozens of times,” he said. Some of it probably has to do with the individual pieces of wood involved and some of it with the “handmade elements” that are subject to human variation.
All the pianists agreed that a new piano needs a certain amount of time to reach its maximum potential, to open up. “It’s a bit like a fine wine, which needs some aging,” Brubaker said. Jochum agrees, citing the Hamburg Steinway she helped choose for Williams several years ago. At first, she wasn’t fond of the instrument once it reached its ultimate destination. However, more recently, “as it has developed into an adult,” she finds herself liking it quite a bit. But, as Chodos observes, pianos are not like string instruments which may have glorious lifetimes of several hundred years. “They are more like cars,” he said, and they wear out in time.
However, carefully chosen and meticulously maintained, a “really gorgeous Steinway will give you whatever you ask of it,” Chodos said. And, for him, the audition of a piano comes right down to a kind of seduction: “I must fall in love with it.”