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A fine way to treat a Steinway, onstage in Orono

Posted Oct. 24, 2011, at 2:43 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 25, 2011, at 12:07 p.m.
Patricia Stowell, a Kneisel Hall faculty member and piano instructor, plays the Steinway model D piano at the Collins Center for the Arts in Orono recently.
Patricia Stowell, a Kneisel Hall faculty member and piano instructor, plays the Steinway model D piano at the Collins Center for the Arts in Orono recently.
Pianist Benjamin Hochman, who will solo with the Bangor Symphony Orchestra on Sunday, Oct. 30.
Courtesy of Bangor Symphony Orchestra
Pianist Benjamin Hochman, who will solo with the Bangor Symphony Orchestra on Sunday, Oct. 30.
Leon Fleischer will perform with the Irish Chamber Orchestra on Wednesday, Nov. 2 at the Collins Center for the Arts.
Courtesy of Eli Turner
Leon Fleischer will perform with the Irish Chamber Orchestra on Wednesday, Nov. 2 at the Collins Center for the Arts.

Backstage the diva waits, polished and prepared, and quietly resting before coming out from behind the curtain. Everyone is waiting to hear her sing. All she needs now is a skilled professional to warm her up.

But instead of hot tea with lemon, she needs wrenches, tuning and perhaps a quick dusting before she’s rolled out onstage. “She” is a Steinway model D piano — one of the finest musical instruments ever made, period. The Collins Center for the Arts in Orono last year purchased a brand new one, after a two-year-long process of fundraising and carefully selecting the right piano from Steinway & Sons’ New York factory store.

“This is the Rolls-Royce of pianos — except with a Ferrari engine,” said Patricia Stowell, a Bangor pianist and music instructor, who was one of eight people on the committee who chose this particular instrument. “You barely push the pedals, and it responds so effortlessly to your touch. It does exactly what you want it to do. It sings. It is just beautiful.”

Though the piano arrived in Orono last fall, it will make its official debut next week with soloist Leon Fleischer and the Irish Chamber Orchestra’s concert at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 2 — just three days after the second concert in the Bangor Symphony Orchestra’s 2011-2012 season, featuring pianist Benjamin Hochman in a “Totally Beethoven” program, set for 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 30.

The process of buying the piano began when nationally acclaimed pianist Jonathan Biss was in town to perform with the Bangor Symphony Orchestra in September 2008. In previous performances, Biss had played the CCA’s old Steinway, purchased in 1986 when the house first opened. Although he played a different piano in the 2008 concert, Biss later confided to Adele Adkins, the CCA’s associate director, that the old piano just wasn’t cutting it any longer.

“He said that our old piano was just spent,” said Adkins. “It definitely took a beating over the years. We knew it was time to invest in a new one.”

Adkins consulted with fellow CCA board members, and the decision was made to pursue purchasing a new piano. It’s no small undertaking — a Steinway model D can cost over $145,000, though the UMaine-affiliated CCA received an educational discount and was able to buy theirs for $125,000. The trade-in for their old Steinway left $100,000 to raise, which was done with the help of a major anonymous donor, as well as the University of Maine and the Collins Center for the Arts.

In June of 2010, Adkins, Stowell, CCA Executive Director John Patches, UMaine administrators Janet Waldron and Susan Hunter, UMaine music professor Beth Wiemann, BSO Executive Director David Whitehill and Bangor lawyer and longtime arts patron Norman Minsky all traveled to New York to pick out a piano. Biss was their guinea pig — he played all five of the pianos Steinway brought out for the committee, at their legendary factory.

Although the group went to New York to research the various Steinway models, the actual purchase was made from M. Steinert & Sons in Boston, the authorized Steinway dealer for the Bangor area.

“It was clear pretty early on that this was the piano we wanted,” said Adkins. “It has this big, beautiful voice, that just fills the hall. We needed a piano that could do that, and that’s what we got.”

Steinway & Sons was founded in 1853 in New York City by German immigrant Heinrich Steinweg. In the ensuing 150 years, the company has built its reputation on outstanding, painstakingly handcrafted pianos, and the model D is widely considered to be the best of the best. Those pianists that reach the top echelons of playing — such as Biss, and coming soloists Fleischer and Hochman — are the people meant to play such instruments.

“The arrival of the Steinway was anticipated like the arrival of a new baby,” said Adkins. “Everyone was so excited to see it arrive here last fall. We still kind of marvel at it.”

The Collins Center Steinway is made of maple, spruce and mahogany, with each layer of wood pressed together to create a sturdy shell that’s stronger than normal wood, but still has a glorious resonance. It is finished with an ebony lacquer. A solid hardwood pinblock holds the high carbon steel piano wires in place, and the inner plate, which vibrates when the keys are pressed, is made of cast iron. The entire instrument weighs nearly 1,000 pounds, and takes an entire year to build.

Brian Catell, a longtime Bangor area pianist, is tasked with the care and upkeep of the CCA Steinway. Catell also cares for the 30-year-old model D Steinway at John Bapst Memorial High School, the similarly old model D housed at Minsky Recital Hall at UMaine, as well as for model B Steinways at Husson University and All Souls Congregational Church and other pianos all over the Bangor area.

“It’s the epitome of piano craftsmanship, and Steinway is always trying new things and coming up with new ideas, so there’s always something new to learn,” said Catell. “It’s amazing to think that each little element of this thing has one person tasked to create it. There’s one person who curves the wood. There’s one person who cuts the wood. It’s a really fascinating instrument.”

The Steinway-certified Catell has tuned and cared for pianos for 33 years, and is a member of the Piano Technician Guild. He’s also a gifted jazz pianist, having played in area groups for years; he’s currently a member of the Jump City Jazz Band. Typically, before a concert such as Sunday’s BSO concert or Wednesday’s CCA concert, he will arrive a day early to tune and prep the piano, and then give it one final workup a few hours before the performance.

“It’s like a car. More mileage means things don’t work as efficiently, and the effort is to keep everything top shelf,” said Catell. “There are so many variables at play. All of that metal has memory, and it remembers where it was before you tuned it. You have to create new memory for it each time you tune it. It’s definitely a specialized skill. Not a lot of people do this. It’s good job security.”

If you go

The Bangor Symphony Orchestra’s second concert of its 2011-2012 season is set for 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 30, at the Collins Center for the Arts, and will feature Maestro Lucas Richman and guest soloist Benjamin Hochman, who will perform Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3. The BSO will also perform Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3 and his Symphony No. 5, as part of its “Totally Beethoven” program. Tickets start at $19. All attendees will receive a free “I Heart Ludwig” Bangor Symphony Orchestra button.

The Collins Center for the Arts will present the Irish Chamber Orchestra at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 2, with soloist Leon Fleischer performing Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto Left Hand, No. 4 Opus 53, as well as Haydn and Beethoven. Tickets are $38 at the CCA Box Office.

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