By Thomas May, first published in Playbill in January 2019
First introduced in Italy around 1700 (give or take a few years), the piano remains one of the most mysterious of instruments: a hybrid of strings and percussion, a machine that requires the human soul to bring it to life. Or, in the words of one of its greatest and most enigmatic advocates, Glenn Gould, an “intriguing mixture of pedals, pins, and paradox.”
Gould himself famously spent years on a quest for his ideal piano. He chanced upon the object of his desire while wandering backstage in a Toronto auditorium in 1960: the concert grand known as Steinway CD 318. According to Kate Hafner in her book about Gould’s Steinway, A Romance on Three Legs, the sense of control was what the pianist cherished most of all, with its hair trigger “like a throttle on a race car.”
It took Gould years to home in on his Steinway, but for pianist Yefim Bronfman—a beloved regular for SLSO audiences—just more than an hour was necessary. In 2018, the Russian virtuoso joined Stéphane Denève and Erik Finley, SLSO Vice President and General Manager, at New York’s Steinway showroom to select a brand new instrument to replace the aging concert grand in Powell Hall.
“It’s important that the decision be mutually agreed upon,” Bronfman, known to friends as “Fima,” explained. “Everyone gave their input, with some back and forth. Sometimes the choices are more obvious than at other times, and you need to be sure that everybody agrees on the piano chosen. A month before this, I was involved in another selection for a different American orchestra that took much longer, because the choice was not so obvious.”
The consensus was that Steinway serial number 609426, built in late 2016, was the right instrument. According to Finley, Bronfman tested the five pianos by playing various pieces of the standard repertoire. “He had a choice from the beginning but didn’t tell Stéphane or me.”
Keeping his secret, Bronfman allowed the group as a whole to narrow their choices to two pianos. “Stéphane and Fima played four-hands rep on these two instruments. Ultimately, we chose 609426 for the instrument’s power, given the size of our hall.” And the winning piano? “It was the piano that Fima had preferred from the very beginning.”
What does the number refer to? In 1853, a German immigrant named Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg founded a company in a loft located in Lower Manhattan, continuing a type of manufacture he had worked on back in Germany. By the mid-1860s, the family anglicized its name, and Steinway & Sons was established.
Every single instrument produced throughout the company’s history is assigned a unique serial number. These have increased in simple numerical order and can be used to determine the year of manufacture. By the new millennium, the number had reached 554,000—more than half a million pianos—and, by 2014, 600,000.
Bronfman is an official Steinway artist, whose ranks include the likes of Vladimir Horowitz and Martha Argerich. While there is an identifiable Steinway brand and sound, Bronfman explains that “it’s a mystery how each comes out somewhat different.” The wood, the climate where it grew, and where the instrument ultimately ends up, for example, are just some of the contingencies that influence the sound.
The first thing to focus on is the instrument itself, he says, “without having any imagination about how it will sound.” He relies on his “instinct” to determine whether the piano feels comfortable in his hands.
“Sometimes the keyboard is not friendly to your hands. You can’t make good music unless you feel comfortable playing it. Then, after you feel comfortable with the instrument, you try to simulate the concert hall” that will be the instrument’s home. “To the best of my judgment, I try to sense how the instrument will project in Powell Hall.”
In fact, Bronfman considers the matter of how the instrument will project to be “the number one priority. Number two would be for the piano to also have true pianissimo, to be able to play soft colors. It has to have personality, by which I mean mystery and beauty and longevity of tone.”
In this process, Bronfman, who is widely admired for his versatility, tried out a broad range of repertoire, from Classical and Romantic concertos to 20th-century works. “You have to keep in mind that this will be playing in a symphony hall. A lot of it is guesswork,” but his guesswork is a good sign, given his familiarity with the Powell Hall space.
But even if the instrument suits Bronfman and resonates with his instincts, what about the many artists who will also use the SLSO’s new Steinway in future? How did he go about choosing an instrument that will not be played mostly by himself?
“Obviously, it’s a huge responsibility to choose an excellent piano for a great orchestra. I take it seriously and am flattered that I was asked to do it. I hope none of the other pianists will curse me! My hope is that it will be a success and that other pianists will enjoy the instrument as well.”