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Stepping Back and Taking a Listen

Word travels fast these days, and whether by Twitter or word of mouth, news of the Gershwin piano’s restoration has traveled “out there”.   I’ve been observing the excitement build, as during the past month faculty and students have poked their head through the open door of the piano technology shop and inquired about the piano, or requested a moment or two to try it out.  Reactions have been favorable, ranging from “Oh my!  How long is this piano?” to “Wow, man!  I can really dig this piano!”  Whether polite or hip, the expressions on their faces tell me a story of delighted enthusiasm mixed with awe and reverence for the composer who owned it.  

Gil Chapman, the masters jazz student who will be performing the much-revered “Rhapsody in Blue” during this week’s debut concert was giddy about being able to play the repeated notes without breaking a sweat.  When he told me how well he felt the touch and tone corresponded, I knew all the work had finally brought forth good fruit.  He said it was “one of the finest pianos I’ve ever played on”.  “It sounds like a nine-foot!”

Gil Chapman at the keyboard.

Gil Chapman at the keyboard.

The sight of Gil playing it in the piano tech shop immediately conjured up for me the image of the youthful George Gershwin at the piano.  How pleased he would have been to see this young African-American jazz pianist playing on his piano!  How more natural and how fitting to have this accomplished School of Music, Theatre & Dance student perform this music, this authentically American music, that owes so much of its heritage and development to African-Americans of the past and present.  And now to have such a central role during the dedication concert on October 10, 2014 in Hill Auditorium.  Nothing could please George Gershwin more.

As each day passes and we close in on the performance date, activities requiring the use of this piano have come and gone.  A video shoot of Gil Chapman, Professor of Musicology Mark Clague and me took place in the piano tech shop before the piano was taken to Hill Auditorium for a recording of “Rhapsody in Maize and Blue”, a commissioned work by DMA composition student, Michael Schachter.  Then a photo shoot with Gil onstage in Hill on October 4. There was the phone interview I had with Susan Nisbett of the Ann Arbor News.  The University released an article in the University Record, with a link to the video, and then the appearance of the University’s press release in the New York Times.  (If anyone should be interested, I guess it should be the New York Times!)

This is all beginning to add up to something big, and I cannot avoid letting some of my emotions about music in general, and about this Steinway piano in particular, intrude on my day.  The intrusion is not unwelcome.  It’s more like having an “aha” moment, several times a day.  I am very conscious of the threads of history.  For now and for the foreseeable future, this piano will be a part of my life, and I a part of its history.  There will be the thread that connects me to the life of George Gershwin and the love of this piano that he had.  And as each performance comes, part of me that I have invested will be onstage with the piano.  I will be, contentedly,  the unseen partner of the pianist onstage, standing behind stage, stepping back, and listening with all my emotions.