Sarasota Orchestra pianist takes a grand test drive
The orchestra went to great lengths — flying Jonathan Spivey to Los Angeles — on its quest for a new concert piano for Holley Hall.
| 11:48 p.m. March 15, 2018
Arts + Culture
All great relationships begin with a spark. It’s that feel-good sensation radiating throughout that helps you make the decision to commit. It just feels right.
The same goes for musicians and their instruments — sometimes after just a few strikes of the keys.
“It felt like a really serious thing, like the beginning of a long, beautiful relationship,” Sarasota Orchestra’s Principal Keyboard Jonathan Spivey says of his experience helping choose the organization’s new piano.
“So I treated it like that. I played careful, beautiful things that speak to my heart.”
On Jan. 31, the Sarasota Orchestra publicly debuted its new Steinway & Sons model D concert grand piano during a solo concert at its Black and White Gala. But the story of how the instrument earned its place in Holley Hall started several years prior.
IDENTIFYING A NEED
About five years ago, Spivey approached Sarasota Orchestra President and CEO Joe McKenna about getting a new piano. The previous Steinway concert grand was more than 30 years old, and it had reached the end of its song. Spivey noticed a great decline in the instrument’s sound, and orchestra patrons were starting to approach him with the same observation.
“Great pianos are like really fine cars; they do wear out, and the piano that we had had sort of reached its time,” McKenna says.
Spivey was so keen on the idea of getting a new instrument that he offered to form a fundraising committee himself. The orchestra team was appreciative, he says, but it wasn’t going to ask a musician to do its job.
So, he waited. And waited some more. A new Steinway concert grand costs more than $150,000, so it was no small fundraising feat.
“The piano is a critical instrument and it needs to be at the level of our musicians and guest soloists,” McKenna says. “It wasn’t a bad instrument but … it did reach that time when we were ready to get a new Porsche.”
McKenna says he and his team identified the need for a new piano as a priority on the orchestra’s capital replacement list because, as the orchestra has improved, the instruments must be at a higher level so the musicians can express themselves even better.
As soon as the organization was able to upgrade the percussion instrument inventory, the piano was next on the list.
In May 2017, the orchestra got the news for which it had been waiting. Sarasota Orchestra was the recipient of a $75,000 grant from the William G. and Marie Selby Foundation, and by early June, the rest of the necessary funds for a new piano were acquired through an anonymous donor.
“It’s nice when donors are willing to embrace when we have a need because we have needs every year,” McKenna says. “We have a community who appreciates who we are, understands that we have needs and most importantly, are willing to act upon those needs.”
Once the money was obtained, the next step was to pick the perfect set of keys.
There was never a question of which brand of piano they would be looking for, McKenna says. The orchestra’s last piano was a Steinway, and the next one would be a Steinway as well.
“They have had a distinguished reputation for a long, long time for building a quality instrument,” he says of the brand. “It’s famous for the craftsmanship of the instrument and level it’s able to play.”
The only question was which location it would come from. The main Steinway showroom is in Queens, so the original plan was to fly to New York City in the fall. But about five years ago, a new location opened in the arts District of downtown Los Angeles. Jeffrey Kahane, music director of Sarasota Music Festival (a program of the Sarasota Orchestra), lives in LA, so it was decided that after the festival ended in June he would take a look at the pianos in his local showroom.
Kahane, who is familiar with the location, says the showroom had about 6-8 pianos on the floor. His plan of attack was to try a big chunk of them and eliminate the instruments one by one.
“You have to understand that they’re all super good, but you have to find the one that’s right for the particular situation,” Kahane says.
A couple months later, he went back again for nearly two hours.
He thought he found the perfect one — but he needed help to make the final decision.
GETTING DOWN TO BUSINESS
Kahane says it’s customary for orchestras to send two or three people to choose a concert grand, so the next move was to fly Spivey to LA as another pair of ears. Pianos sound different when you move away from them, Kahane says, so it’s helpful to have other experienced pianists standing throughout the room, some as far as 70 feet from the instrument, to test the sound from various positions.
The point was to pick a piano that would specifically work for the more intimate, 454-seat Holley Hall because it won’t be played anywhere else, he says. So it was important to get a feel for how it projects. That’s where a team of opinions comes in handy.
“I guess I had veto right,” Spivery says with a laugh. “But I went out there thinking, ‘If he liked it, I’m sure I will like it, too.’”
Spivey’s flight left Tampa for LA on Oct. 10. His stay in LA was brief — two nights — but productive.
The pianist joined Kahane’s close friend and fellow pianist Joanne Pearce of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and her husband in the LA showroom, tucked back in an unsuspecting area of the city. They took turns playing and scattering about the room to analyze the quality of sound, often turning to works by Beethoven and Bach as testers, but it was a Schubert work that became the deciding piece.
“The focus was on Schubert Impromptu Op. 90 No. 4 in A flat,” Spivey says. “The middle section of that piece calls for layering, depth of sound and careful voicing where you hopefully lean into just enough of the melody not to feel it lift above the rest.”
This was the go-to test piece because they were looking for a truly versatile piano, Spivey says, and that Schubert work requires the ability to construct layers of sound.
Their piano also needed a basic raw power, Spivey says, to play the brilliant and loud chords that would fill Holley Hall. But on the other hand, the instrument needed to be able to produce an intimate, sculptable sound as well. Hence the importance of being versatile.
“It needs to fill several functions,” he says. “One is as a solo instrument for recitals, and in chamber music for small groups it can’t be too overbearing so that it covers other instruments, that’s how you lose friends really quickly … And you need it to be able to carry its own against the whole orchestra.”
Spivey and Kahane agree that the challenge was trying to predict how the instrument would sound in Holley Hall. There’s some definite guesswork that’s involved, Spivey says, so they weren’t sure it was going to work out until the “anointed one” finally got to Sarasota.
A HAPPY HOMECOMING
Without any knowledge of which instrument had been Kahane’s favorite after his first visit, the other pianists chose the same piano. The decision was unanimous.
But why was this “the one?”
“It’s hard to put into words,” Kahane says. “I think any pianist will tell you that a piano has to feel good under your fingers … But metaphorically speaking it’s very warm, very rich, it has a singing quality and the sound sustains.”
In November, the chosen piano was put on a truck and driven more than 2,580 miles from the LA showroom to the local Steinway dealer, Pritchards Pianos, in Sarasota. After initial preparations, the instrument made its final trip to its new home of Holley Hall.
Spivey, who was the first person to play the instrument after the tuner, says it sounded even better in Sarasota.
The experience was both stressful and rewarding for Kahane, who has chosen pianos for several orchestras. He says it’s always a pleasure to play half a dozen grand pianos for an afternoon, but there’s a great deal of pressure that comes with such a large purchase.
Spivey, who had never chosen a piano before, was in heaven.
“Maybe I’m too childish about this, but I thought of it more like a kid in a candy shop,” he says. “Maybe for some people picking out a new car would be similar, but this is so much better than that because it’s what you’re going to be working with and performing with for many years.”
McKenna and Spivey say the piano is not perfect, but after a year or so of breaking in, they expect it to be acclimated.
“Even though it’s here and doing great things, it’s still developing its personality,” McKenna says.
“It needs people to pound on it for a long time … It needs some concert tunings and lots of playing. Then it’ll blossom.”