Given the option between something new that’s a sure thing, but is also fairly commonplace, and something old, rare, and extraordinary, which could ultimately be a quagmire, which would you choose?
This past Saturday afternoon, on a whim, we visited a piano showroom. My wife, Trudy, who is a keyboardist, brought along some music to test out the various instruments, and I did what I usually do with a piano—improvise around a series of randomly associated seventh and ninth chords. Much to our mutual surprise, we were both rather infatuated with a recent Yamaha baby grand. She thought it had great control, and I was pleased with its tone quality. We spent the rest of the day brainstorming how we might commit the financially and physically challenging act of taking said piano home with us. Luckily there is financing for such things, just as there is for homes and cars, and, I being reared in New York City and she in Hong Kong, we’ve never felt a need for having much spare physical space in our apartment.
After talking this over with a few friends, the next day we received a call from another piano dealer who picked us up and drove us to visit another bunch of pianos. Within minutes we developed a strong crush on a 1910 Boston-built Mason and Hamlin baby grand with ivory keys that plays but could benefit from some significant work. It sounded amazing in passages from Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Grieg, but I couldn’t quite get a groove out of it when messing around with a blues progression.
Of course, with the right technicians, adjustments could probably be made that would enable the Mason and Hamlin grand to be more malleable. But if it were altered much, would it still retain its magical essence? And, if we really wanted to alter it, shouldn’t we just go with the Yamaha? Wouldn’t a newer piano be a better workhorse to encourage the creation of new music? Or would a century-old piano better inspire work that could stand the proverbial test of time?
Of course, the sane answer is probably that we don’t need to buy a grand piano in the first place: I’ve been going further down a not-particularly-piano-welcoming microtonal path and we already have a Baldwin upright (which I’ve had for 30 years and which is serviceable, though action-challenged), along with a single-manual harpsichord and a clavichord we got on eBay a few years back that still needs tons of work. But I’m not looking for a sane answer.