The Well-Tempered Ear

How pianist Peter Serkin came to play an American Steinway over a German Steinway in last weekend’s Madison Symphony Orchestra concert

October 8, 2009
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

If you heard the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s season opener last weekend, you heard a blazing performance of the profoundly beautiful and dramatic Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor by Johannes Brahms.

(Beethoven’s “Consecration of the House” and Richard Strauss’ tone poem “Death and Transfiguration” were also given exceptional and exciting readings, although neither is a first-rate piece of music to my mind.)

Peter Serkin was the pianist.

And Steinway was the piano.

But which Steinway?

Not the MSO’s own house piano, a Hamburg Steinway from Germany.

It was a 1950 Steinway Concert Grand (a model “D”), made in New York City.

Steinway 018

The piano – along with a vintage, if flashy, red leather artist’s bench — was chosen by the soloist Peter Serkin from the local piano dealer, Farley’s House of Pianos, on Madison’s far west side near West Towne.

Here’s how it happened.

The Farley family has known the Serkin family, both through Madison and through the Twin Cities, where Serkin often performs and where the brother of Madison’s Tim Farley (seen with the piano) is also a piano technician.

“Whenever he comes to town, he stops by,” says Farley. “He’s interested in the restored pianos, not the new ones.”

When Serkin knew he was coming to Madison this season, he asked to visit Farley’s store and see if alternatives were available to the Hamburg Steinway, whose tone and action – that is, the touch of the keys – Serkin is known not to like.

So Serkin visited the Farley showroom, where he tried out two different pianos: a Steinway Centennial Concert Grand from 1877, when Brahms was still alive, and the restored 1950 model.

“He went back and forth and ultimately decided on our house instrument,” Tim Farley says, citing the restored 1950 concert grand used for the concerts that take place at Farley’s.

Then Farley’s delivered (and carted away) the Steinway for free.

Was Serkin happy with how it worked out? Steinway 002

“He turned in an incredible performance,” says Farley, who attended two rehearsals and three performances.

“He was so thrilled, he can hardly wait to get the recording of it. He was so thrilled not only with the piano but also with the musicians and conductor John DeMain’s terrific accompanying. If there isn’t this feeling of partnership, great results do not come from the music-making. So he was very appreciative.”

For his own part, Farley says he is also happy that his piano business could help an artist of the stature of Serkin feel at home in a difficult masterpiece.

“It’s quite a feather in our cap and a compliment to all of us,” he adds, praising his restorers and technicians.

“Pianists don’t have the same chance to feel at home with their instrument that violinists and cellists do because they can’t bring their own instruments along with them,” Farley explains. “We are glad we could give that to him.”

“We are more than happy to support the Madison Symphony Orchestra in any way we can,” Farley adds. “There was no charge for the piano, although we did charge for the tuner because there would be that charge no matter what piano was used. So it would be just like a $2,000 a donation.”

As for the Madison Symphony Orchestra, it too is not unhappy with the situation.

In fact, last season, pianist Olga Kern used a Yamaha concert grand – which produced to The Ear a thinner and tinnier sound compared to the Hamburg Steinway — for an all-Beethoven concert. The piano, complete with technician, came from Milwaukee.

And this time?

“There was no problem at all, no bad feelings,” says Ann Miller, the Marketing Director of the MSO. “We just wanted to make sure the local couple who donated the Hamburg Steinway (worth almost $150,000) were OK with it.”

It turned out they were indeed OK with it.

But the task for finding that out fell to MSO Managing Director Rick Mackie.

“Any time a pianist wants to use a different piano, we do that,” Mackie says. “We always have alternatives to the house piano. Different pianists have different tastes in pianos. Peter Serkin is known to like New York Steinways because they have a different action from German Steinways.

“We’re really pleased we have good pianos in Madison and we can try to suit the piano to the artist,” Mackie adds. “That’s a basic courtesy. There are no issues for us. It’s all irrelevant. We always let pianists choose their piano.”

And everyone – including the three audiences that rose in enthusiastic standing ovations — was happy with the Serkin-Steinway performance of the 45-minute-long, technically difficult and musically challenging Brahms concerto.

So no, the incident will not stop the MSO from again booking Serkin, who signed the inside of the piano he used, said Mackie.

And a local solo recital by Serkin, to take place at Farley’s, may even be in the works, Tim Farley adds, although the ticket price would probably be higher than usual.

Do you hear Serkin’s and the MSO’s performance of the Brahms concerto?

What do you think of the playing by Serkin and the MSO?

What did you think of the piano?

The Ear wants to hear.


Posted in Classical music

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