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KZNPO’S NEW STEINWAY (article first published : 2006-02-11)

Ladies and gentlemen – Durban and KZN music lovers all – may I introduce to you the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra’s brand new out-of-the-box (literally!) Steinway Concert Grand Piano which made its debut on Thursday night at the opening concert of the KZNPO’s World Symphony Series Summer Season.

It was a splendid evening all round. Conducted by Robert Maxym, the capacity audience enjoyed a programme which featured Mussorgsky’s emotionally-charged Night on a Bare Mountain followed by a superbly sublime performance of Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy by Simone Lamsma on a Stradivarius violin (reputedly worth at least R2m!). Appearing for the third time with the KZNPO and christening the new piano was renowned pianist Florian Uhlig in a dazzling performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.3.

Last year, the Steinway that had been used for the KZNPO’s concerts – and virtually every other event in the City Hall that required the use of a piano - eventually gave up the ghost. Not surprisingly. It had been badly housed at the City Hall and insufficient care had been taken of the instrument. The inevitable had to be faced - a new piano had to be acquired in a hurry. Now, concert grands don’t grow on trees and they don’t exactly come cheap and a new piano wasn’t on either the KZNPO’s or the City’s budget.

World famous maestro pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy, who has appeared with the KZNPO several times, had made a promise to the orchestra that if they were able to raise the funding for a new Steinway, he would personally go into the Steinway showroom in London and choose a suitable concert grand.

Fortune smiled on the KZNPO in the form of an anonymous donor who generously came up with the R1 million to buy the required instrument. Florian Uhlig also offered to go to Steinway which he duly did, arriving before Vladimir Ashkenazy. Having checked out the three pianos Steinway had considered suitable, he made his choice but kept it to himself when Ashkenazy arrived. However, the maestro made the same decision so the piano is obviously a perfect choice!

The Steinway Concert Grand is now strictly to be used only by the KZNPO and is housed in a room at the side of the City Hall stage which has carpeted floors and walls and its own air-conditioner to keep the instrument at a constant temperature of about 23 degrees (any colder and moisture forms).

Well-known Durban pianist Andrew Warburton was the first person to play on the instrument, albeit in the privacy of its carpeted room. He was followed by another well-known musical personality, Barry Carbis. The piano’s custodian, Barry has given it the apt name of “Grace” and the two pianists are playing it regularly to “break it in”. The first note the audience heard from the instrument was the single “A” from the KZNPO concertmaster Hristo Kardjiev as he tuned the orchestra to the piano. All this built up to Florian Uhlig’s impressive rendering of the Rachmaninoff. (See Michael Green’s review on these pages)

In the few moments of silence once the orchestra was tuned and as the audience waited for the appearance of the conductor and soloist, I suddenly got the imagery that the piano seemed very much alone and vulnerable on the stage. If it had a voice, it might have said: “A short while ago, I was in freezing London, then they took my legs off, bundled me into a crate and flew me halfway across the world. Here I am in Durban, at the start of my career. Everyone’s wonderfully friendly but it’s hot and humid, the temperature’s about 31 degrees and now they expect me to produce the Rachmaninoff No.3!”

The “Rach 3” is notorious among pianists and the concerto is what made international pianist David Helfgott’s nervous system crack (portrayed in the movie Shine). “Most of us are terrified of it!” says Andrew Warburton. “It tests every possible level of endurance and stamina. It is thick in texture. Technique is transcendental. There’s no real slow movement – it’s fireworks all the way! There are about 40,000 notes in the last movement alone and the way in which it is written makes huge demands on the left hand. Rachmaninoff himself had big hands capable of large stretches.”

KZNPO Marketing Manager, Janet Welch, explains that the piano was flown out from London in a crate prepared by Steinway. “Stuttafords brought it from Customs and their men were simply superb,” she says. “There had been a mix-up with the City Hall and when we arrived, a rehearsal for a fashion show was taking place which meant we were unable to use the piano lift to get the new Steinway onto the stage. So the 16 men from Stuttafords literally hefted this crate - weighing as much as a small car - onto the stage where it was put on a trolley and wheeled to the back and unpacked. It was quickly assembled with the help of the staff of Poonans and the Verve Cliquot was duly opened!”

The Steinway is made from a variety of top quality hard woods such as beech and the soundboard and other parts are spruce. “What makes it special, though,” explains Janet, “are the 'mechanics' of the piano which are of a brass tubular design unique to Steinway.” To get technical, the dimensions of the Steinway are weight (480kg); length (274cm); width (157cm), and height (102cm). The crated weight which included the piano stool was 570kg.

“The piano runs on amazing wheels which are a new design by Steinway,” adds Janet Welch, “and it simply glides along.” Steinway's only technician in South Africa, Ian Burgess-Simpson, came at the end of January to commission the piano and will be required to visit during the course of the year.

The purchase price was R900,000. However, to this cost had to be added VAT as well as the instrument’s care and upkeep. Florian Uhlig compared the Steinway to red wine and mentioned that, in his opinion, it will be “a much better piano in three years’ time”.

So, music lovers of Durban and KwaZulu-Natal, watch magnificent young “Grace” grow and mature, listening to the changes in her timbre and depth of tone as she grows to full “piano-hood”. Here’s a heartfelt and passionate thank-you to the anonymous donor as well as to the KwaZulu-Natal Performing Arts Trust for their support in her upkeep! – Caroline Smart




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