Torn Between Two Beloveds

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.

18 thoughts on “Torn Between Two Beloveds

  1. sarahcahill

    pianos
    Hi Frank- You mention being “infatuated” with the new Yamaha, and that’s a great reaction. About the Mason and Hamlin, you equivocate a bit, and mention that it needs some work. I’ll bet that some Mason and Hamlin dealer tried to sell you on the fact that it’s got history and pedigree, and that it’s a better investment than a new Yamaha. But isn’t this all a matter of personal preference? You and Trudy fell in love with the Yamaha, so that seems like the best choice. I myself am quite happy right now with a beat-up nine-foot Baldwin I got for three thousand dollars from Mills College (it was in the studio shared by Alvin Curran and Pauline Oliveros). At the house we stayed at in Inverness over the summer, there’s an atrocious upright which is missing keys and has probably never been tuned. But its peculiar qualities inspired Luciano Chessa to write a new piece, and I love responding to its own “alternate tuning.” So it sounds like you and Trudy have found the instrument you love, and don’t let anyone convince you to look elsewhere unless that’s what you want.

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  2. william

    Sarah, I think I know that piano you bought. My wife and I once subbed for Pauline for a couple weeks at Mills and used her studio to teach some lessons. I sat down at the piano to show a student some things and noticed it wasn’t working properly. I raised the lid and found a three foot long tree branch and a large amount of mouse droppings inside it. Somehow it seemed to make a rather Millsian point about music.

    William Osborne

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  3. sarahcahill

    mouse droppings
    That’s a great story, William. I’m working on several pieces of Pauline’s right now, but sadly, none of them include tree branches and mouse droppings. But there is a rather dark stain on the piano’s sound board…

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  4. Frank J. Oteri

    Sarah, thanks for chiming in here, but I’m worried that my desire to write non-repetitive prose might have unduly influenced your comment above. In my lexicon, “rather infatuated” means the same as “strong crush.”

    As Trudy reminded me after I posted, we were really, really smitten with the Mason and Hamlin. We’ve never been that close to a piano that was that filled with such character and mystery. Her fingers flew across the keyboard as though possessed, and maybe they were. But the sound is specific and charged with history, and that’s been my worry as a composer of new music. Would such a piano be malleable enough to do what I would want to do with it as a composer and would Trudy be able to play as broad a range of repertoire as she would want to? The Yamaha seems like it would be serviceable for all repertoire though not life-transforming in any.

    And indeed, this is the very reason I decided to talk about it via Chatter. I wonder how people feel about how much influence an instrument has on what is being played on it (not anthropomorphically, but in real corporeal terms). We’re both big devotees of period instruments, but music that does not yet exist there is no current instrument so to speak.

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  5. Elaine Fine

    For me there is nothing as lovely as my 100-year-old Beckwith upright. There is something timeless about the sound of an instrument that is really seasoned and has played a lot of music. Whenever I play music I’m writing on it I hear wonderfully rich overtones that I just don’t hear when I play a newer piano. If there is one thing that ties new music to older music for me it is sonority. As musicians and composers, our currency is sound. I would always pick an instrument that has a rich sound over the kind of instrument built to sound “clean” and “bright” because new music calls just as much for richness as it does for in-your-face strident brilliance.

    If I were given a choice of playing new violin music on a brand new fiddle or an Italian instrument from the 17th or 18th century, I’d pick the older instrument any day. I think there is something about the resonance of old wood that transcends every musical era.

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  6. sarahcahill

    infatuation/crush
    Sorry Frank, I misunderstood: “infatuation” always sounds stronger than “crush” to me, and you said the Mason and Hamlin needs some work, which means sinking more thousands of dollars into it. If only you could present a concert of music you’ve written on both the Mason and Hamlin and the Yamaha, so that we could all witness the difference and advise you based on what kind of music you compose on the two pianos (and how Trudy performs on them as well).

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  7. MarkNGrant

    One historical cause of your dilemma, FJO, is that there used to be far more variety of color and sonority among pianos manufactured before, say, the first World War, and that we have lived for almost 100 years in an era of homogenization of the very concept of piano sound, an era wherein every piano manufacturer more or less emulates the Steinway sound paradigm (and don’t get me wrong, I’m a Steinway man). Nothing brought this home to me more than a visit in 2002 to the Frederick Historical Piano Collection in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, a hilly little town about as remote from highways as you can get in Massachusetts. There, one can not only view magnificent specimens of 19th century piano makers, but actually play them. I could never have conceived how extraordinarily different piano sonorities were pre-1910 until I played the Broadwood, Bluthner, Erard, and other models in the Frederick Collection. They were singletons, not clones, of music reproduction, the way different luthiers create different sounds for violins and guitars. Oh sure, there are sonoral and timbral differences among our modern New York and Hamburg Steinways and Bosendorfers et al., but all our modern pianos sound far more similar to each other than 19th century pianos sound to other 19th century pianos. A few contemporary pianos have tried to break the mold; I’ve heard a real textural difference from the rest of the pack playing a 9-foot Falcone, but little or none hearing the much-touted Fazioli.

    Yamaha is a fine piano, and artists like Richter and Cziffra played it late in their careers, but for paleopianophilic me, and with due respect to my friend Sarah Cahill, who is certainly a better pianist than I am, the choice must be the Mason and Hamlin.

    That is, Frank, unless the following fact scares you off: Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji ( Leon Dudley) owned a Mason and Hamlin of about the same vintage as the one you’re contemplating purchasing.

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  8. randy

    Hi Sarah,
    I too remember that piano from Mills. I went in for one of my weekly lessons with Alvin Curran as he was at work on his Inner Cities 8. As soon as I walked in, he asked me to sit beside him at the piano bench and told me to listen. He played the opening sonorities of the aforementioned piece that he was working on, playing from that tiny notebook he always carries around. After a few minutes, he suddenly stopped and turned to me and said, “isn’t that beautiful, it sounds just like Wagner…but it goes absolutely nowhere.” I’ll always remember that. Then he got up and proceeded to sit in that old beaten up squeaky chair—dubbed the Darius Milhaud chair—and we began our lesson. You’ve got a really special piano on your hand there.

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  9. sarahcahill

    What an interesting discussion! Mark, your description of the piano collection makes it sound like a revelation. And you’re absolutely right about the individuality of older pianos. I’m curious though about this line: “There, one can … view magnificent specimens of 19th century piano makers.” Are Mr. Hamlin and Mr. Mason both there? Are they mummified, or embalmed? But seriously, you make a very important point about piano history. And your new column is terrific!

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  10. sarahcahill

    Inner Cities
    … and thanks for that Alvin Curran story, Randy. It’s wonderful to know that Inner Cities 8 was composed on this piano.

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  11. Daniel Wolf

    I grew up with a San Francisco-made Broadwood upright, possibly the only piano ever made in California. It’s light touch has left an imprint; no other piano will ever feel exactly right to me. I’m a Californian permanently lost to the mellow touch of a Californian piano.

    In Budapest, I lived for five years in sight of Bartok’s house, now a museum. The piano in his studio there was a small Bösendorfer grand. Once or twice, I snuck over the barrier and clawed the keyboard, revealing a perfect instrument for intimate music-making, incapable of getting any louder than a mf on your standard issue Steinway or Steinway-copy. I realized that my entire conception of Bartok’s soundworld was off, it was far less brutal than I had imagined it, and far more nuanced.

    No piano is a blank slate, and its own character will soon assert itself, a new piano more slowly than a piano which has already been here and done that. Get a honest assessment of the restoration costs, and if you can afford it, buy the piano you love rather than the one you respect.

    As for the question of the piano as an investment, it’s precisely like real estate. You have to live someplace and the house you live in is prinicipally that; you will value it differently from an investment object choosing it and caring for it in ways which sometimes avoid the bottom line, and you won’t trade in and out of it to beat the market. On the other hand, your investment house is the one you respect, but cannot afford to love, as you must be disciplined enough to recognize its market value (i.e. how others value it) and unsentimentally seize the moment when it is best to buy or sell.

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  12. lawrence

    who decides
    If your wife is a pianist, then it should be her decision. That’s her primary tool — yours is between your ears, not under your fingers. Trust your imagination, regardless of what the piano is telling you.

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  13. teresa

    OK–I have to chime in here. I think I have the most wonderful piano in the world: a 1906 Steinway “B” , with a carved mahogany case, ivory keys, and a rich, smooth, wonderful tone . I bought this piano several years ago sight unseen because I knew that Steinways before WWII have this sonorous ringing quality (mentioned by someone in the comments above) that comes from the combination of the wood they were using to build at that time, stretched around the iron frame (not the sounding board–the case). Similar to a good old violin, there is something different about these older pianos that is not being reproduced in today’s current factories (at least not in the general consumer market). It was a steal at the time (the owners had bought it for it’s “antique” qualities) and I kept it for a year while I was in graduate school, then had it rebuilt by Ted Kostakis who owns A&C Piano Craft in NYC, and used to work for Steinway. I think he is the best. His shop is currently located on the west side on 52nd street between 8th and 9th. I don’t know if he’s doing as much re-building as he used to do, but it’s worth a trip.

    I think it’s true that you will have to find the instrument that you both fall in love with… but I always go for the older instruments because I just don’t think there is anything being made today that matches them.

    Sarah–it sounds like you have an instrument with an interesting past! We will have to get together and play duets one of these days…

    -Teresa

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  14. sarahcahill

    old Steinways
    Hi Teresa- How wonderful that you found your mate in terms of a piano. I know what you mean about old Steinways. I myself have an 1895 Steinway, the piano I grew up with, but it stays at my mother’s house. As you know, if you’re practising inside the piano with Annie Gosfield’s baseballs, or Evan Ziporyn’s weatherstripping, or Luciano Chessa’s battery-operated fan, or Annea Lockwood’s superball mallets, stones, wooden mothballs, and Tibetan bowl gongs, then far better to practise on an old weathered Baldwin which has housed tree branches and mouse droppings, than on a prized old Steinway. Joe Kubera always makes me wear those little finger condoms when I play on the strings of his fabulous Mason & Hamlin. But I need a certain amount of abandon while practising.

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  15. sarahcahill

    piano loan
    Frank, if you and Trudy want to babysit a piano for a while to see how it feels, you might contact Ben Treuhaft, the excellent and eccentric piano technician and tuner who runs the organization Send a Piana to Havana, which sends pianos, parts, tuners, and technicians to Cuban schools and concert halls. Ben is from the Bay Area, but we lost him to New York about seven years ago. He always has many more pianos than he can store. Over the years he let me use his extra Steinways and Bechsteins and Bosendorfers, sometimes for years, and you just pay moving costs. It’s a pretty good deal, because he’s a generous soul.

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  16. WR

    I once owned a 1906 Chickering that was my soulmate – it was quite unbelievable what I could get it to do. But it was beginning to fall apart, with strings and hammers breaking frequently, and the action getting looser and looser. Something had to be done, either a restoration or get a different piano. After talking to my technician and others and reading up about it, I decided it was just too unpredictable to go the restoration route, given the cost. The chances seem to be really quite huge that much of what you love about an old piano is going to go bye-bye during a restoration. For example, I was aware that one reason my piano was so expressive was because the hammers were so badly worn. They would have been replaced in a restoration, and that effectively would have completely changed its “voice”. You may still end up with a pretty good piano after getting an old one fixed, but those things that attracted you to it may be gone. And the problem remains that you still have an old instrument that is more likely to have problems than a newer one.

    I ended up playing a lot of new and slightly used pianos and eventually found one that called out to me and now is my musical collaborator. I love it, but it’s still a child, in piano years. I REALLY miss that old Chickering sometimes, but still think I did the right thing to give it up. Ideally, I would have had it restored and also bought the new instrument, but that was impracticable.

    Reply

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