Who could ask for anything more? George Gershwin’s last piano makes U-M debut

Grijalva poses with the unrestored Gershwin piano shortly after its arrival. Courtesy photo

Grijalva poses with the unrestored Gershwin piano shortly after its arrival. Courtesy photo

Susan Isaacs Nisbett
(Ann Arbor, Oct.9, 2014)

S’wonderful. Marvelous, too.

The last Steinway grand piano owned by famed American composer George Gershwin – the one on which he most likely composed “Porgy and Bess” – has a new life.

Donated to the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance in 2013 by Marc Gershwin, George’s nephew – the crowning gesture of a partnership between the Gershwin families and U-M during the creation of the U-M Gershwin Initiative – the fully restored piano makes its debut Friday evening at a free School of Music Hill Auditorium concert.

The Gershwin Initiative provides U-M with complete access to the Gershwin archives to develop the George and Ira Gershwin Critical Edition and comprises student performances, new courses and scholarly symposia. (On Friday, afternoon and pre-concert panels focus on the piano itself and Gershwin’s music.)

‘The piano is the star of the concert,” said U-M Associate Professor of Musicology Mark Clague, a co-director of the U-M’s American Music Institute who heads up the Gershwin Initiative and is editor-in-chief of the critical edition.

It should well be the star. It is only one of three Gershwin-owned Steinways in the U.S. (one resides at the Library of Congress, another at the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame). It will also be the only one of the three to see frequent, regular concert use.

If the piano, in fact, figures in every piece on this all-star program featuring student and faculty performers – for example, in Gershwin’s “Three Preludes,” and in selections from “Porgy and Bess, including the Heifetz violin and piano arrangement of “My Man’s Gone Now” — it unquestionably gets top-of-the-marquee billing in Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”

That work is a concert headliner for numerous reasons: It receives an emblematic performance in its original 1924 jazz orchestration for Paul Whiteman’s band, The Palais Royal Orchestra, prepared from a Critical Edition score; and the newly refurbished piano that the evening’s soloist, Gil Chapman, plays is the one Gershwin took possession of as he prepared for the 10th anniversary tour of “Rhapsody in Blue.”

Gershwin took delivery of the piano, a 1933, 6’4”-long Steinway Model A3, in January of 1934. It stayed with him until his untimely death at 38 in 1937, when it moved to the New York apartment of his mother, Rose Gershwin. When she died, in 1948, Marc Gershwin’s parents, Arthur and Judy, occupied the apartment, and so did the piano – until it left for the U-M in spring 2013.

Hardly played during that time, it was in need of a serious overhaul if it was to become the concert instrument destined for regular use that Marc Gershwin wanted it to be, rather than a Gershwin relic, venerated as a museum piece.

The job of restoration fell to the U-M’s Robert Grijalva, director and assistant professor of piano technology, who enlisted the aid of Patrick DeBeliso, proprietor and artisan/craftsman of PianoCrafters, Inc., in Plymouth, Mich. The Gershwin piano is the latest of several collaborations between the two, who speak about each other’s work with great reverence.

Grijalva has kept a fascinating blog of the piano’s progress, which you can find on the Gershwin Initiative website. In a recent phone conversation, this veteran of many a Steinway restoration said it was a long time before it really hit him hard that this was Gershwin’s piano.

“It didn’t happen until I was voicing the hammers,” he said, referring to the process of tone regulation, near the end of the restoration, through needling and otherwise treating the felt of instrument’s hammers.

“It was not till I actually sat down and stuck the first needles in that I thought, ‘I could screw this up,’ Grijalva said. I had a few false starts, but in the end, after that, it was almost like an easy voicing. The piano cooperated so well, it told me right away what direction it wanted to go. It took me no more than six or seven hours in the end. Beyond that, I could just sit back and relax and listen to the thing. I was sitting there in awe of the sound.”

So were pianists like the U-M’s eminent Martin Katz, said Grijalva, who stopped by for a play and sat to extemporize a la Gershwin. Grijalva says the instrument has a sound that is “classic American, both rich and clean.”

It’s also one that’s worthy of a piano longer than its 6 feet 4 inches. “It’s really a lot bigger than the size of that piano,” said DeBeliso by phone.

In fact, noted Grijalva, one of the reasons Steinway discontinued production of the A3 – it was made only between 1914-1942 – was because this shorter and less expensive instrument was too much competition for the pricier Steinway 6’11” Model B, an instrument coveted by serious pianists. (Steinway recently resumed making the A3’s shorter cousin, the 6’2” Model A.)
Since the Gershwin piano was destined for active performance, many of the decisions regarding its restoration were clear from the outset, Grijalva said.

The sound board, against which the strings vibrate, had lost its its vital crown. It also had a “Grand Canyon running down the middle of it,” Grijalva said. The moving parts of the action were worn, the ivories of the keyboard “dished” from all Gershwin’s use (You can imagine George Gershwin playing — he did that to this keyboard,” it has his DNA,” said Grijalva), and the hammers deeply grooved from repeated strikes of the strings.

As DeBeliso put it, who would want to sand those hammers to smooth them? “Those string marks created “Porgy and Bess.”

And so it was an easy decision, both say, to rebuild the instrument completely while at the same time preserving the old keyframe, keys and action intact. That way, they could leave those Gershwin grooves alone, leave the old action and keyboard alone (“I couldn’t see myself unscrewing action parts and putting them in a garbage can, as decrepit as they are,” said Grijalva. “They’re spent parts, but they’re George Gershwin’s spent parts.”) The action will be on display at the School of Music and – very important – can still be reinserted into piano when the occasion calls for it, providing a another tangible connection to the man himself.

Meanwhile, DeBeliso and Grijalva went about a meticulous replication of the piano’s original mechanisms and parts. “He had the belly, I had the action,” is how Grijalva describes the division of labor.

“Belly work” meant removing and duplicating the old soundboard.
Each Steinway bellyman, DeBeliso explained, had his own idea of how the board should taper around the edges.

“We made an exact replica of the original,” he said.
The new board has the name of the bellyman who signed the board back when it was made in 1933, and “then there’s our name and this year. You’ve got to pay homage those guys, they helped make this piano sound the way it sounds.”
The cast-iron plate was regilded, new strings installed. DeBeliso also forefinished a new keyboard, a requirement with Steinways. Forefinishing is the tedious and exacting process of hand-fitting the keyboard to the instrument.

“I can’t tell you how many people wanted to have their picture taken with the old keyboard,” DeBeliso said. “So many! They would say, ‘I just want to touch it.’ It’s so great that it’s preserved, and if someone is a Gershwin aficionado, all they have to do is slide the new action out and Gershwin’s in, and it’ll work and play.”

“I was blessed that Bob (Grijalva) asked me to do it,” DeBeliso added. “And Bob really nailed that action so nicely. It’s really impressive.”
“Once we had it all together, it just clicked,” said Grijalva. Patrick and I are kindred spirits when it comes to restoring a Steinway. I think if George was around, he would say, ‘My goodness, I love this piano.’”

If the piano sounds the way it might have when it was taken off the dolly in George’s apartment back in 1934, it also looks a bit the same: Grijalva took the same approach to the piano’s case as he did in restoring the Steinway that resides in the U-M Museum of Art – clean the case up, but leave it alone so that it looks of its period. “When you are walking up to it, it looks like a 1933 Steinway that has been used. We certainly wanted to retain that.”

There are those who may wonder, is it really Gershwin’s piano if all the innards are new? Grijalva has a ready answer, one that he relayed in our phone call and that he reiterated online, in the New York Times, in response to a reader comment following an article about the piano.

“The case of the piano and, to an extent, its iron frame are what define the soul and essential character of a Steinway,” he wrote. “As we like to ascribe pianos with human characteristics, the soundboard is the heart, and just like with humans, the heart of a piano can be transplanted with a new one, but the soul remains. As a rebuilder with experience in hundreds of Steinway restorations, I can attest that old Steinways with new boards still retain the sound of the era during which they were built. Pre-war Steinways, with their rims glued together with animal hide glue, don’t come out sounding like the current production pianos, which are assembled using different glues. This can only be the ‘fault’ of the case.”

Each rim on a Steinway, he told me, is “truly unique,” the product of its glues, the way the wood adapted itself to its new shape as it sat in the conditioning room for several months. “That’s what gives the piano its soul,” he said.
“I have a lot of faith that we treated this with all its due respect to George Gershwin and his family. And you can’t argue with the beautiful results.”

Who: Faculty and students from the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance

    • What: All-Gershwin concert to unveil the historic, recently restored George Gershwin piano.
    • Where: Hill Auditorium, 825 N. University Ave.
    • When: Friday, 8:30 p.m., with pre-concert talk at 7:30 p.m.
    • How much: Free! For more information, visit http://www.music.umich.edu
      Also: Free panel discussion at 2:30 p.m. Friday, Hill Auditorium, on the piano’s restoration.

Read the original at MLive!

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