WBUR

Boston Pianists Hit The Road In Search Of A Steinway

QUEENS, N.Y. — How’s this for a different twist on the audition process: This week, a posse of pianists on faculty at the New England Conservatory traveled from Boston to the Steinway & Sons piano factory in Queens, N.Y.

Their mission was to try out and buy a new concert grand for Jordan Hall, the NEC’s world-class performance space. Five musicians put five hulking, high-priced, one-of-a-kind instruments through their paces for hours.

Veronica Jochum is the first pianist to arrive at the Steinway factory in Astoria, Queens. And she’s gleeful to have the five shiny, black concert grands all to herself.

(Andrea Shea/WBUR)

Bruce Brubaker, the chairman of the New England Conservatory’s piano department, tests out a piano at the Steinway & Sons piano factory in Queens, N.Y. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

“I’m just trying various things out, you know?” she says. She’s playing what, from here on in, will be referred to as piano No. 1.

“I need a piano which is warmer. Warm is somehow Brahmsian singing, but still not piercing color. And some of those — this one for instance, which is a little uneasy — has sharpnesses. Singing is one thing and piercing is another.”

She quickly moves to piano No. 2.

“This thing sings more already,” she says.

But Gabriel Chodos, the next pianist to enter the audition room, hones right in on Jochum’s reject, piano No. 1.

“This has the aura of a real Steinway,” he says.

Chodos jumps from piano to piano, like a kid in a candy shop, tasting each one’s flavor and personality. Adjectives such as tubby, extroverted, nasty and sweet pass between the two musicians to distinguish the five instruments. And, while they’re having a blast, they honor the fact that this “shopping trip” is serious business for the NEC.

Chodos says it’s time to replace the current pianos at Jordan Hall.

“They’re not like violins,” he says. “They don’t, for the most part, improve with age. They’re more like cars than violins. So it’s very important for us to have the best possible piano in that wonderful hall.”

Next in line to test pianos is Bruce Brubaker, the chair of the NEC’s piano department. He says he thinks every major venue and most music schools go through such a process periodically. Or they should, especially at a high-profile venue such as Jordan Hall, which hosts great musicians from all over the world.

He’s got criteria: “Which piano has the most possibility, which piano has the most beautiful sound material — and also be malleable enough to be used by all the many pianists who play it and in all the different kinds of music that they play on it.

(Andrea Shea/WBUR)

John von Rohr, a consulting technician, helped the group pick the perfect piano. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

Brubaker admits they’re running a risk on this day because musicians from the NEC’s Jazz and Improvisational departments are not represented. But, he says, the classically trained pianists who are on site have very strong opinions and diverse sensibilities. That said, what happens if a consensus can’t be reached?

“I guess in the end if we really can’t agree then maybe that’s a sign that we shouldn’t buy one,” he says. “I’m not sure.”

The debate heats up as the three pianists wait for the rest of their colleagues to arrive. Piano No. 4 has entered the race. No. 3 and No. 5 are out of the running. Then they get word that acclaimed soloist Russell Sherman missed his plane from Boston and is stuck in traffic.

John von Rohr, a consulting technician, peers under the hood of piano No. 2. Then the group decides to move piano No. 1 into the center of the room where the acoustics are better.

The tension rises, which isn’t surprising considering the Steinway’s eye-popping price tag of $118,000. Sally Coveleskie, national director for institutional sales at Steinway and Sons, says it’s justified.

“It takes almost a full year to build a Steinway,” she says. “Each instrument is hand-crafted, we have close to 400 crafts people in the factory building these instruments.”

This sale is important, says Coveleskie, because the NEC and Jordan Hall are renowned, and she’s thrilled to have so many world-famous pianists in the Steinway factory at one time.

“So to find one piano that will satisfy every one of them is always the final test,” she says.

But it’s actually not the final test. That happens in the hall where the piano will ultimately reside, and it isn’t always pretty.

“It’s a bit of a crap shoot in that sense because you don’t know quite how the piano is going to sound in a different environment,” says Victor Rosenbaum, who arrives just as the three other pianists are honing in on Steinway No. 1. It seems he’s the voice of dissent, but also willing to relent.

“Yes I do have some misgivings,” he says. “Because I feel the one that seems now to be favored was a bit brassy for my taste. And my reservation’s also based on the fact that pianos tend to get more that way over time as they’re played.”

Finally, Russell Sherman and his wife, pianist Wha Kyung Byun, show up after hours on the highway — and still with a sense of humor.

“Greetings, time for a cocktail,” he says.

Their decision will seal the fate of one of the pianos in this room. Sherman did not want to be recorded as he assessed the selection. After 20 minutes, he and his wife confer with Bruce Brubaker.

“Just one note, it’s pretty good, and I find it better than all these pianos. It’s not the same…”

And, five hours after the first pianist arrived here an instrument is chosen. Piano No. 1. Brubaker is pleased, and relieved.

“Boston’s getting a much better piano. That’s the way I look at it,” he says. “We’ve just done Boston a huge service. Yes we have. I believe.”

And they’ll get to do it again in a few months. The NEC raised enough money to buy two Steinways this year. But the group won’t go back to New York. Instead they’ll fly to the factory in Hamburg, Germany in search of a different voice for Jordan Hall.

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