The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Is it piano neglect? The University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music should take better care of the piano used for student concerts. Plus, Madison Symphony Orchestra maestro John DeMain gets raves for conducting an opera in Washington, D.C.

February 21, 2016

ALERT: Did you wonder what Madison Symphony Orchestra maestro John DeMain was up to since the MSO concerts last weekend used a guest conductor?

Well, the hometown maestro was guest conducting a week-long production of Kurt Weill‘s opera “Lost in the Stars” for the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

A number of  critics didn’t particularly like the opera itself, which is based on the famous anti-apartheid novel “Cry, the Beloved County” by Alan Paton, and some criticized the theatrical aspects of the production.

But music director and conductor DeMain received praise for his part.

Here are links to various reviews:

There is more praise in a mention on Page 2:

By Jacob Stockinger

Calling it piano abuse it would be a stretch. That sounds too accusatory and too sensational.

But calling it piano neglect certainly seems justified and fair.

When The Ear attended some recent student recitals, he noticed the unfortunate treatment of a concert grand piano in Morphy Recital Hall, on which many students perform their degree recitals.

From a distance, and under the glare of stage lighting, the piano (below) seemed more or less OK.

Morphy piano 1

But when he went up close, The Ear saw just how chewed up the wood was in so many places.

Morphy piano 4

Now some wear-and-tear seems normal, especially for a piano that gets so much use for solo recitals and chamber music. And truth be told, it probably plays pretty well and is maintained in good shape internally.

But the outer condition of this piano nonetheless seemed as if it had indeed been neglected over the years — though maybe there are other reasons.

There were eye-catching scrapes and gouges that just look junky.

Now The Ear knows that the talented piano technician at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music is very busy. After all, there are a lot of pianos to tune and regulate.

And The Ear also knows that budget cuts are presenting challenges to the School of Music and its staff.

But that seems all the more reason to take care of the pianos the school has. The likelihood of replacing it with a new one seems little to none.

After all, these days a Steinway concert grand Model D sells for pretty close to $125,000.

If you had a car worth that much, you would surely not neglect its maintenance and upkeep. So why would you do it to a piano, especially one that gets so much use and is in the public eye so frequently?

So on the eve of more student degree recitals, which will only increase as the end of the spring semester draws closer, here is The Ear’s plea:

Please use the padded covering that can protect the piano when it gets moved, and try to be careful about bumping or scraping into things that can cause permanent damage.

Also, if there are times that the piano’s finish gets marred, please use that specially made piano dye to restore the ebony finish and please repair any chipped keys, which are plastic not ivory, by the way.

The Ear doubts other instruments — strings, brass, woodwinds — would be allowed by their owners to fall into such a state.

If you doubt all this or think it is overstating the case, here are some close-up photos that The Ear took.

It hurts The Ear to see such a fine instrument neglected and deteriorate. He assumes that the students who use it feel the same way – and he hopes the public does too. Owning such a fine musical instrument imposes a certain responsibility on the owner, and it should be repaired.

Morphy Piano 2

Morphy piano 3

Morphy piano 5

Morphy piano 6

Morphy piano 7

Is The Ear being too hard or fussy?

He would like to know what students who play the piano and what other audience members think.

Use the COMMENT section to let him know.

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music: NPR plays musical anthropologist and goes into the field to bring back a live recording of glam pianist Yuja Wang playing Prokofiev at the Steinway Factory in New York City.

February 22, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has to hand it to NPR’s terrific classical music blog “Deceptive Cadence” and to NPR’s “All Songs Considered.”

For quite some time now, NPR has featured “Tiny Desk Concerts” — classical, jazz, folk, roots music — during which major performers play live in the crowded NPR studio. They are easy to link to and stream over your computer or maybe even your TV set these days. (NPR books great guests, including, below bottom, superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma.)

Tiny Desk Concert set at NPR

Yo-Yo Ma and Tiny Desk Concert

You can also find NPR links to and archives of other live performances -– often through radios stations such as WQXR-FM in New York City and WGBH in Boston –- and include a recital of live music in major halls and venues, including one of Franz Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, Claude Debussy and Frederic Chopin by the acclaimed Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes at Carnegie Hall (below). And there are many, many others.


And now Deceptive Cadence seems to be acting like musical anthropologist. The time they went out “into the field” – that is, not in the usual venues and concert halls.

That’s not unheard of, of course. That is how the great composer Bela Bartok (below) started out as a musical anthropologist or ethnologist of Hungarian and Romanian folk music, and then used his research to morph into one of the pioneers of musical modernism. Chopin used Polish music like the mazurka to create a new Romanticism. And in American folk music, the musical anthropology of Alan Lomax is legendary.


Specifically, NPR went to the piano factory of Steinway and Sons in New York City and recorded the red-hot glam pianist Yuja Wang playing the fiercely difficult Toccata in D Minor, Op. 11, with all its hypnotic repetition of a single note, by Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev on a brand new Steinway concert grand. (You can see and hear it in a YouTube video at the bottom. Don’t forget to click on the icon that is second from the right to enlarge the video image to fill your computer screen.)

The music and the physical virtuosity or dexterity is amazing to behold.

It is also kind of cute and informal to watch the diminutive figure of the glamorous Wang playing difficult cert music in a cold, wood-strewn and equipment-strewn warehouse in fingerless wool hobo gloves that go up her forearm –- but only after she uses the reflective fallboard above the keys to put on glossy lipstick and so complete her outfit of black fur-like boa, black stiletto heels and geometrically high fashion black-and-white dress.


Ah! Those tribal ceremonies and native attire!

Anyway, here is a link to the performance by Yuja Wang at the Steinway and Sons factory in the borough of Queens, not the usual Steinway showroom in Manhattan where most pianists test and choose pianos for their performances.

The Tiny Desk Concerts archive has lots of kinds of live performances.

For example, here is the famed Kronos Quartet (below) doing a recent Tiny Desk Concert featuring its latest recordings. Many other such concerts by other artists have been archived and are readily accessible:


And here is a link to the archive, with links to other older archives, of music Live in Performance housed at NPR. It includes chamber music, orchestral music (below is the Mideast peace-promoting Palestinian-Israeli West-Eastern Divan Orchestra under co-founder and director Daniel Barenboim in Carnegie Hall), operas and recitals:

West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim, Carnegie Hall

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Classical music: Steinway will remain Steinway, says John Paulson, the new billionaire hedge fund owner of the famed piano company.

December 27, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

Talk about branding!

Is there any piano with more prestige than Steinway, whether it is the New York branch of the family or the Hamburg branch?

Steinway Grand Piano

What aspiring serous pianist doesn’t dream of being a “Steinway’ artist” like Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz, Rudolf Serkin, Van Cliburn, Emanuel Ax and so many others.

But maybe you remember that in the 1970s, CBS took over the company and used such “new and improved” things as Teflon couplings that led to many problems.

So people are rightly guarded about the new Steinway owner, a billionaire manager of a hedge fund manager who would seem more concerned about making money than preserving the nitpicky artistic quality, which you can get an idea of from the YouTube video tour at the bottom that is narrated by a member of the Steinway family.

But preserving artistic quality of the handmade and painstakingly assembled Steinway piano (below top) is exactly what John Paulson (below bottom), the new owner of Steinway, vows to share, and adds that such first-rate quality is exactly why he wanted to buy the company.

steinway piano inside

john paulson

That kind of vow is the ultimate Christmas gift to pianists around the world. Makes you wonder: Does John Paulson play the pain? How well? Is he a pianophile?

Here is a link to the interview and story about Steinway that appeared on NPR:

Classical music: Ambitious two-piano concerts on Friday night and Sunday afternoon celebrate the restoration of the historic Steinway 1879 rosewood concert grand piano at the Wisconsin landmark Villa Louis.

June 26, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend will see two special concerts — with somewhat different programs — at Farley’s House of Pianos, located at 6522 Seybold Road on Madison’s far west side near West Towne. The concerts celebrate the restoration of a historical 133-year old piano (below, in a photo by Jess Anderson)) to a famous Wisconsin landmark: Villa Louis.

The first concert is Friday, June 29, at 7:30 p.m. (with a pre-concert lecture at 7 p.m.); the second is Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m. and features the same artists plus a pre-concert lecture by restorer Tim Farley (below, working on the piano’s action, in a photo courtesy of Farley’s).

Both will mark the restoration of the historical piano to a Wisconsin Historical Society landmark, the mansion of  Villa Louis (below) in Prairie du Chien.

It is turning out to be  popular event.

Explains Renee Farley: “The June 29 concert sold out early last week. There was an overwhelming response from the public to be part of witnessing the send-off concert of Wisconsin’s greatest historic piano.  This caused a ticket stampede. (The Villa Louis piano belongs to everyone in the state of Wisconsin, being part of the Wisconsin Historical Society.)

Knowing this was a rare opportunity to share some of their favorite pieces with the public on this piano, the artists offered a Sunday afternoon soiree on July 1 at 4 p.m. Tickets can be purchased for the Sunday afternoon concert by calling Farley’s at 608-271-2626.  General admission is $30.

Two different historic restored pianos will be used: the 1879 Steinway concert grand that was used in Villa Louis; and an 1877 Steinway “Centennial” Grand (below) that was also restored by Farley’s and that resides in the company’s main showroom and concert hall, where it is often used for concerts.

The Villa Louis restoration — pictures below were provided by Farley’s — was paid for by donors, with no tax dollars used, according to Farley’s, which is very pleased with how the restoration turned out. In fact, Wisconsin Public Television is documenting the restoration and the concert for broadcast.

The artists performing are duo-pianists Stanislava Varshavski and Diana Shapiro (below), who both received doctorates from the UW-Madison where they studied with Martha Fischer.

The ambitious program is: Stravinsky’s suite from his ballet “Petrouchka” as transcribed by Varshavski-Shapiro and played on the Villa Louis piano; Rachmaninoff’s  Suite No. 1 for Two Pianos (at bottom); Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” (arranged by Varshavski-Shapiro) performed on the Villa Louis piano; and Rachmaninoff’s  Suite No. 2 for Two Pianos.

Tickets include a pre-concert lecture and a post-concert reception.

For more information and tickets, call (608) 271-2626 or visit:

For more about Villa Saint Louis, including many color and black-and-white photographs, visit:

Retired State Historian Jack Holzhueter (below) wrote the following fascinating essay and historical account, which also discusses the historical role of the piano, for the concert:


By Jack Holzhueter

No grand house in America lacked an equally grand piano in the late 19th century, and the stunning 1870 Italianate mansion built by the Dousman family in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, was no exception.

It was built to replace an earlier, but still large, red brick house made in 1843. The architect in 1872 was Edward Townsend Mix of Milwaukee. And the client was the son of one of Wisconsin’s earliest millionaires (before a billionaire was even thought possible), Hercules Dousman — a fur trader and speculator in lands in Wisconsin beginning in 1826.

He died in his brick house in 1868, opening the door for his 21-year-old son and namesake, Hercules Louis Dousman II, to do what rich men’s sons often do: spend money on themselves. Louis, as he was called, also acquired a wife with a lineage suitable for a fine, new house, Nina Linn Sturgis of St. Paul, the daughter of a general. After their 1873 marriage, children arrived quickly, five in all by 1883.

Their principal home was in St. Louis, but they spent summers in Prairie du Chien (supposedly a cooler place) and never stinted on their house. In 1876 they visited the centennial exposition in Philadelphia and went on a buying trip to New York, acquiring Tiffany silver and jewelry and probably making arrangements to buy the Steinway Centennial Grand.

Steinway already had become the leading piano manufacturer in America as well as Europe, having employed American ingenuity and bravado to improve upon shortcomings in European pianos that had previously dominated the upper market.

Steinway turned to rosewood for its most elegant models because of its density, nearly black color, and rich, contrasting grain. (A rosewood craze in the late 19th century nearly wiped out the now-rare species. Below is a rosewood tree that has been just felled.)

The Dousmans wanted the best, and they got it. But Prairie du Chien did not.

The piano first went, from 1879 to 1884, to the new art gallery in their St. Louis home. Then in 1883-84, the Dousmans redecorated Villa Louis in the English Arts and Crafts style, into which the Centennial Grand slid nicely.

So from 1885 to the present, with a notable 15-year gap, the piano has dominated the Villa Louis parlor, more than 130 years in the same family, and mostly in the same room.

Those five Dousman children included Judith and Virginia who played — a common story in modest houses as well as mansions. Nina, too, played, and she and Virginia also composed.

In houses large and small, pianos were more than decorative. They provided “live” music before recordings existed; they were an adjunct for parties — which the Dousmans excelled at giving; they were a gathering spot akin to the hearth.

By 1900, the piano was ubiquitous around the country. Somehow, the Dousman Centennial Grand survived upheavals in the family (Louis’s death in 1886; Nina’s disastrous remarriage; the house’s use only as a summer home), occupancy of the house by a boys’ school after 1913, and removal to Campion academy (a Roman Catholic boys schools in Prairie du Chien) from 1920 to 1935. That arrangement lasted until the Depression.

Then in 1934 the house became a museum and the piano was restored to its place of prominence. First the city owned the house, and since 1952 the Wisconsin Historical Society has owned it.

Despite lack of maintenance, the instrument remained playable. Guides in the 1950s invited qualified performers to play; others in the tour groups would sing along—not unlike the situation during the Dousmans’ house parties of the late 1800s. Hands off the antiques! But hands on the piano, which brought the Villa’s rooms and tours to life. Soon that deferred maintenance took its toll and the piano fell silent; only words accompanied tours.

But now, miraculously, the piano has had its voice restored. Now it can be heard in something even more beautiful than its original glory, courtesy of modern materials and restoration techniques. And its dingy finish has been restored to its original luster—dark chocolate with caramel streaks (below).

May the Villa Louis Steinway Centennial Grand continue to make the mansion a home.

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