Rows of brand new Steinway grand pianos lined the Shirley Welsh Ryan Opera Theater in the new Music and Communication Building. The instruments, which had arrived two days earlier from the Steinway & Sons factory in New York City, were now tuned and ready for Bienen School piano faculty to choose which pianos would find a home in the new building.
“Although all pianos look the same, each has its own personality,” explained James Giles, associate professor and coordinator of the piano program at the Bienen School.
Giles, along with Bienen School associate professors Sylvia Wang and Alan Chow, traveled to the Steinway & Sons factory in late January to make the initial selection of pianos for the new music building. At that time, two model D pianos (9-foot concert grands) were purchased for the 400-seat Mary B. Galvin Recital Hall, as well as two model B (7-foot grands).
Additionally, ten model O grand pianos (approximately 6-foot grands for classrooms and practice rooms) were delivered by Steinway, including six with satin finish, three with high-polish finish, and one high-polish Sterling Steinway, a special model that features cask-iron plates coated in silver and nickel-plated hardware instead of traditional brass. From these ten pianos, the faculty assessed each instrument carefully to make the final selection of six pianos to purchase
“When trying a brand new piano one tries to ascertain the instrument's basic character and sound while also judging what kind of potential it has once it is played. These pianos will evolve and open up as they are played,” said Giles.
After the pianos were carefully packaged and shipped to Illinois, Steinway technicians spent an entire day prepping, tuning, and voicing the instruments. A woodworker further evaluated the pianos to ensure they were in pristine condition for the Bienen School faculty.
Rhapsody Snyder, Chicago Institutional Sales Manager for Steinway & Sons, explained that the selection process involves considering the pianos for their different purposes. Some pianos will be more appropriate for chamber music, while others will be suited for piano practice rooms.
“The pianos are all handmade, so they each have a very unique voice,” said Snyder. “We value the selection process, and it’s a great honor to provide a local selection and have the faculty personally choose the pianos for the school.”
Snyder noted that Bienen School piano faculty member, Alan Chow, is a member of the international roster of Steinway Artists, a group of almost 1,700 pianists from all genres of music who endorse Steinway pianos.
Steinway & Sons began hand crafting pianos at their factory in New York City in 1853. Each grand piano takes nearly one year to complete and passes through the hands of 250 skilled factory workers.
Sylvia Wang said that during the New York visit, they were considering not just the instruments themselves for their beauty and character, but also how they would complement each other and be suitable for Mary B. Galvin Recital Hall.
Wang said selecting the rest of the pianos for the Bienen School’s new building was a gratifying experience that involved a combination of technical observation and visceral connection to the instruments.
“Essentially, when I tried the pianos I was looking for evenness of action and sound, a cantabile (singing) upper register balanced against a ringing but not thuddy bass,” said Wang. “Beyond the technicalities, certain instruments just make one want to play because of a particular quality of character or soul, and there were certainly some like that.”
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