Ever since he became CEO of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra seven years ago, Don Reinhold has heard an increasing volume of whispers from guest piano soloists.
The two Steinway pianos, owned by the City of Wichita, had become too old and outlasted their usefulness as effective instruments.
“They were both from, I think, almost the very beginning of Century II, so they’re about 60-some years old,” Reinhold said. “While they were maintained with some maintenance in recent years, they had pretty much worn out their useable lifespan.”
Soloists “were quietly telling us it was time to farm them out to a senior citizen home or something,” he added. “It was no longer up to par for the concert level we perform at.”
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But it wasn’t until two longtime symphony patrons – Russell and Helen Meyer – borrowed one of the pianos for a house party that the orchestra paved the way for a Steinway of its own.
“I understand these pianos have seen better days,” Reinhold recalls Russ Meyer saying after the party.
Reinhold explained to Meyer, chairman emeritus of Cessna Aircraft Company, and his wife, a conservatory-trained pianist who retired in 2016 after 40 years on the WSO board of directors, that a new piano was needed.
“They both have very close relationships to the symphony,” he said of the Meyers, who agreed to donate a new piano.
But getting a new piano on the stage at Century II isn’t as easy as ordering from Amazon Prime or going to the music store on the corner.
The Meyers and Reinhold flew to New York City on the Cessna executive jet, where they met WSO music director Daniel Hege (who lives in Jamesville, New York) and pianist Stewart Goodyear, a soloist during the 2017-18 season.
They arrived at the factory in the Astoria section of Queens.
“This is a factory that Steinway built in the 1870s,” Reinhold said. “Much of it is a step back in time, because they make the instruments pretty much the same way they made them 100 years ago. It’s almost entirely made by hand.”
Only 235 concert grand pianos are made in the factory in a year, he said, and about 3,000 pianos total. The number is equaled by the Steinway factory in Hamburg, Germany.
The group chose the Model D, best made for playing in large theaters such as the Century II concert hall.
“We refer to it as the nine-foot, but it’s a quarter-inch shy of nine feet,” Reinhold said. “This one can play over an orchestra, and that’s what we were looking for.”
Reinhold said he was amazed with the meticulous craftsmanship in the factory, and the uniqueness of each instrument.
“Each piano comes with its own unique sound,” he said. “It’s very subtle for laymen to distinguish, but a concert pianist can.”
Steinway has its own lumber yards specifically to build its pianos. It uses hard-rock maple for the rim, pine under the instrument, birch for the keypad and spruce for the actual keys, finished with a polymer surface.
And forget that cliché about tickling the you-know-whats, or that song from Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder.
“No ivory,” Reinhold said. “Steinway stopped using ivory in the ‘50s.”
The soundboard is made from Alaskan Sitka spruce.
“Steinway buys it bulk, knowing that they’re going to only use maybe 30 percent of it,” Reinhold said. “But when it comes time to select the spruce for the soundboard, the artisan goes out and looks specifically for spruce with more than 10 grainlines to an inch.”
Fewer than 10 grainlines, which generally mark a year’s growth, means the tree is either too young or has grown too fast, and is “consequently too weak,” he said.
There are between 300-400 workers at the Steinway factory, Reinhold said, each with different tasks.
“It takes about a year to build one concert grand,” he said. “Much of that time is basically spent drying. Once you bend the rim, and this something that is hard for people to imagine, but you look at that thick rim on a Steinway and you wonder, ‘How do they get it shaped like that?,’ because it normally doesn’t bend that way.”
Eighteen layers of maple come individually off a glue machine that bonds the 22-foot long planks to each other.
“Six guys built like linebackers take it off the glue machine and they clamp it into a rim-bending mold and literally using their strength, they wrap that wood while the glue’s still wet, around the mold, clamping it as they go, until it’s locked in,” Reinhold said.
“They remove it from the mold and it holds its shape,” he added. “It’s an incredible experience to see how this goes through such painstaking labor.”
It’s quite a whopper for a new baby: 8 feet, 11 ¾ inches long; 61 ¾ inches wide at the keyboard; a weight of 990 pounds, and it must support 45,000 pounds of tension in the strings.
“Everything inside must support that,” Reinhold said. “That’s a lot of tonnage.”
And the cost?
“Let’s just say it’s in the plus-or-minus territory of about 150 grand,” Reinhold said. “It depends on the shipping and the taxes.”
Reinhold said he and the others in the Wichita Symphony party gained a greater appreciation for the piano that will make its debut with concerts by pianist Stephen Hough next weekend.
“You start to understand how unique and special these instruments are,” he said. “There’s really almost nothing like them anymore.”