By Courtney Lewis, Jacksonville Symphony Music Director
In August, I travelled to New York City with our CEO and artistic administrator on an especially exciting mission: we were headed to the Steinway factory to choose a new concert grand piano for Jacoby Symphony Hall. While good pianos in our homes can last for generations, the sheer volume of use on concert instruments means they usually need to be replaced every twenty years, and our existing piano was at the end of its distinguished career. With a season full of Mozart piano concertos on the horizon, we needed to get something new quickly.
Founded in 1853, Steinway & Sons has two factories, one in Hamburg, Germany, and another in Queens, New York. Their pianos are among the finest in the world; their nine-foot model D is the industry standard in classical music, powerful enough to soar above an orchestra without any amplification. Model Ds can be found in over 90 percent of concert halls worldwide. Meticulously built by hand, each piano has a unique voice, and finding one that complements a particular hall can be tricky.
At the turn of the last century, piano building was booming. In the age before the gramophone, many more households had pianos than today. Demand for Steinways was so great that the company built streets of rowhouses around its factory to house their large number of skilled workers. In fact, the area of Astoria around the showroom is still named Steinway.
We arrived early in the morning for a tour of the factory. This was my first visit, and I found the whole experience absolutely fascinating. We saw the rack that bends multiple layers of wood into the U shape of the piano’s body and witnessed the incredible precision with which the soundboard is chiseled out from a single piece of Alaskan spruce. The cast iron frames that hold the enormous tension of all the strings are manufactured in a foundry in Ohio owned by Steinway before being shipped to New York and Hamburg to be fitted into each piano’s wooden casing. Technicians “voice” the completed piano by either softening or hardening the felt hammers that hit the strings with a variety of implements including pins and lacquer. The sheer skill of the workmanship was breathtaking, every tiny improvement over the decades individually patented.
After the tour of the factory, we were shown into a gleaming showroom with five model Ds lined up beside each other. It’s customary to have a concert pianist join you at this point to help choose. We were lucky enough to have Natasha Paremski, a wonderful Russian American whom some of you may remember from Brahms’ Second Concerto a couple of seasons ago. Natasha said she already had a favorite but played each of the pianos for us, commenting on what was good and bad in each. One piano had a spectacularly powerful bass, but the higher strings didn’t seem to sustain enough. Another had a wonderfully warm tone, but we worried it wouldn’t carry across the orchestra in Jacoby Symphony Hall. Another was incredibly bright and powerful but lacked subtlety and character. We quite quickly came to a consensus that one piano was special. In the relatively small showroom, we could feel its resonant bass notes through our feet, its treble notes seemed to sing forever, and the middle range was powerful but also beautiful with a special personality that intrigued us. It turned out this was the piano Natasha had chosen from the very start. Natasha played us snippets of Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev, I played a little Chopin and Schubert, and after much discussion and debate we were all in agreement that this was the right instrument for Jacksonville.