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A Post-October 10 Reflection

George Gershwin composing at his Model A3

George Gershwin composing at his Model A3

The events of October 10, 2014 will resonate for me for the rest of my years at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance.  On that Friday, the School offered to the world a reborn Steinway Model A once owned by George Gershwin, and generously donated by his nephew Marc Gershwin.  All the anticipation, all the work had finally merged into programs offered at Hill Auditorium that featured the works of George and Ira Gershwin, and lauded the partnership between the U of M and the Gershwin Archives.

That Friday, the SMTD also offered a view of itself as a world-class institution, of its departments as laboratories for learning and the gestation of the next generation of performers and scholars.  Friday was a showcase of vibrant, creative, talented young individuals putting forward their best feet, best voices, best ensemble and best solo efforts in service to music, music theatre, opera, dance, and solo and ensemble music.

I was somewhat unprepared for the accolade that came my way.  In my line of work, the effort is usually behind the scenes.  Tuning is a solitary pursuit, usually performed early in the morning before the birds are up.  Those who witness what I do are usually the house techs and custodial staff, with whom I share that hidden-from-the-general-public workload.  All unsung heroes in my view, but Friday was special for me.  I am humbled and gratified by the outpouring of support and congratulations.

Enough people have asked me to reproduce or send copies of what I said when I stepped onstage in the middle of Friday’s concert that I thought I ought to reproduce it here.  So, here goes:

Restoring the George Gershwin Model AIII Steinway“, October 10, 2014, Hill Auditorium

There has been a lot of interest generated about the restoration of the Gershwin piano and about the role played by my department.  I think that the results have spoken for themselves.  We have a glorious piano on our hands!

The Steinway Model A3 that stands before us is one of those shining examples of the piano building art.  There were three earlier versions of the A, all shorter than the A3, but they failed to satisfy in the way the A3 does.  George Gershwin’s A3 or “long” A is the one most coveted by pianists and technicians for its design perfection. Sadly, though, the long A was “flawed” in one respect:  it proved to be an example of such superb engineering that it eventually became a threat to sales of the much revered Model B, Steinway’s “seven-foot small concert grand”.  Unfortunately, this led to the A3’s eventual discontinuation in 1942.  The beauty of its existence made this piano its own nemesis in the end.  The result is that A3s are somewhat rare, and the opportunity to restore one doesn’t come about as often as one might like.

When Marc Gershwin and I were communicating about the piano’s future he made his wish  known that his uncle’s instrument ought to be made available for performances by faculty and students.  He understood the significance that a donation of this kind assumes, and he spoke of the role the piano could play in cementing the unique marriage of the U of M’s scholarly resources with the Gershwin Archives for the purpose of producing the Critical Edition.

During the restoration process, I was invited to write a blog about the experience, starting with considerations of what it means to restore an historic piano for the purpose of making it a resource for students and faculty.  It’s like reaching back into history and performing a forensic exam of a piano, discovering its secrets, learning about what makes it unique and preserving that uniqueness.

There are sensitive decisions that take on an importance that one doesn’t consider in an ordinary restoration.  What to do with the keyboard and hammer action, for example. I couldn’t reconcile in my heart throwing hammers and repetitions in a garbage can that were once the vehicle of expression for George Gershwin!   So, one of the earliest decisions was to hand fit a new keyboard and action into the piano for performance purposes.  The original action and keyboard (with Gershwin DNA and ivory intact) are to be preserved and put on display in the new addition of the Moore Building.  Yet it can be put in the piano again at any time.

Likewise, the exterior ebony finish is exactly as George Gershwin left it.  We wanted to retain the look of a well-worn piano.  Therefore, all the dings and dents, the rubbed-off edges of lacquer where he rested his forearms while composing at the piano; they’re all there.

The soundboard, however, had to be replaced.  Old age and a crack the size of the Grand Canyon made that a necessity.  This meant that a new pinblock and new strings would also have to be installed.

That’s when I turned to PianoCrafters in Plymouth, Michigan.  Patrick and LuAnne DeBeliso, and their bellyman Paul Stelmaszyk have been our close collaborators on a number of historic piano projects on campus.  They are unquestionably the finest Steinway restoration experts in Michigan.  I felt confident that they would be able to construct a perfect duplicate of the original soundboard.  Patrick is fond of saying ”The devil is in the details”, and they clearly got all the details right in this piano.

It may be fair to wonder whether with a new soundboard and strings and action, this piano has retained its soul, its “Gershwin-ness”.  The answer is actually two-fold.  First, it would be very hard to argue that the new board doesn’t sound better than the original, having been cracked and having lost its crown.  I think we can all agree it does.  The other part of the answer is that the real soul of a piano resides within the rim of the piano.  Steinway’s process for combining the inner and outer rims into a single continuous bent “acoustic rim” means that every piano takes on a personality of its own.  The manner in which the glue dries and the way the laminations creep and cure against each other, the months-long seasoning process; these imbue each rim with its lasting character, its unique sound, its soul.

The soundboard is the “heart”, which has been transplanted here in the finest detail.  But the rim remains, and it leads the conversation with whatever soundboard is in contact with it. During yet another waiting period, the rim and the soundboard speak to each other in an exchange we humans cannot perceive.  The crowning process is a cooperation between rim and soundboard, where the rim eventually has the greater say, and the soundboard agrees to this integration of woods, the real beginning of the music making they will perform together.

And so, the character of this 1933 remains, and my confidence is my conviction.  George Gershwin’s A3, is one of those long A’s that somehow turned out better than perfect.  It possesses a certain magic, and it’s not something necessarily quantifiable.  It’s serendipity.  If it makes you feel like you’re soaring because of its majesty, if it makes you cry because of its sweetness and bell-like tone, I feel George would agree and he’d be soaring and weeping with us.  He would claim it again for his own.

In my blog, I mentioned that as a tone sculptor I stand atop the pyramid of builders and technicians who in their respective times created the foundations of the piano we know as George Gershwin’s Model A3. Without all these people to hold me up, there would be no voice through which he could again sing.  To my partners at PianoCrafters, and to the fantastic team that helped me at the School of Music (Norman, Scott, and Garrett) I say “thank you” and “thank you” again!

To Marc Gershwin and the entire Gershwin family, for entrusting me with the vision to make this piano a performer again, I extend my most heart-felt gratitude.  It’s been a thrilling experience for me to steer this effort.

Were I asked or allowed, I’d order up a special badge with the moniker “One in a thousand”, and I’d place it just so where anyone playing it could see.  Hearing is believing!  Tonight we are all believers!


Friend and Partner, the Gershwin Model A3

Friend and Partner, the Gershwin Model A3