By Tom Morain, Director of Government Relations
Carol Hall is getting a new piano. Not just any set of 88 ivories, but a nine-foot, top-of-the-line Steinway concert grand. I was privileged to accompany Graceland piano and orchestra professor, Maestro Jack Ergo, to the Steinway showroom and factory in New York City recently to help make the selection. Our game plan was that we would each play on each of the instruments available and then make our pick.
Jack had prepared to test their power, tone and versatility with intricate passages from Rachmaninoff, Debussy and Bach. He said he had spent a month in “…a kind of separate spiritual universe, preparing myself to choose a world-class piano that will spend 100 years bringing to life the artistic expressions of thousands of performers.” I had prepared by polishing up on “Sweet Hour of Prayer.”
The Graceland party also included my wife Vikki and David Liljedahl, piano technician from the Steinway dealer in Des Moines who will provide long-term maintenance. On ‘The Day’, a Steinway representative led us back to the showroom. There they were, lined up all in a row – six elegant, shining black Steinways, lids up, waiting. “Take whatever time you need to choose one,” he said. Then he left. Jack said it felt a little like the first time he saw his son in the maternity ward – “a powerful experience”.
Jack Ergo and Tom Morain test drive a Steinway grand piano
Choose one? It is like being asked which ‘Lamborghini Spyder Performante’ convertible you find most suited to your personal driving style. To those of us accustomed to church basement uprights, standing in the presence of six new Steinway Grands was a near-transcendent moment. If this wasn’t heaven itself, it was the closest thing to a trial run I am likely to experience. While Jack made his first pass through all six, we listened intently and silently. Then I did the same. While each was “perfect”, each still had its own personality. We color-coded the tones from bright “red” to subtle “purple”. Sometimes the high notes would seem better on one piano; on some the low octaves were simply magnificent.
After the first run, we eliminated Pianos #1 and #3. The first seemed a little “thin” in comparison with the others, and #3 was just too powerful for a 120-seat recital hall. Jack said the latter could have held its own against a 100-piece orchestra. #5 was the next to go. #4 and #6 emerged as finalists.
After Jack’s first test on each, Vikki quietly predicted we would choose #4. It just sounded the best to her. Two and half hours later, we chose Piano #4. Vikki could even tell the magic moment when the piano and Jack fell in love with each other. Jack said #4 “…is a piano of multiple personalities; able to express many characters. I have never felt such a responsive touch – from the softest colors to a thundering power!” He praised it for its versatility and the way it can “sing” in soft passages. He said it is not only a good solo instrument, but it can tone down to support a student’s vocal recital.
Jack Ergo is a superb pianist and performer, but perhaps more importantly from a Graceland perspective, he is a consummate music educator. To watch him work with a student is a study in pure joy. He said, “A marriage between the new Steinway and the acoustically-perfect Carol Hall, designed specifically for solo recitals, assures a future of excellence for the Graceland music department. We anticipate many uses for Carol Hall, especially for individual students. It is rare for any university or concert venue to have an open policy and especially for an undergraduate to have access to such a space and instrument. I close my eyes now and see the students lining up.” Back in the Steinway showroom, we reported our choice, and Jack signed the paperwork. Unlike used cars on the dealer’s lot, a Steinway piano is not marked “Sold”. A classy blue tag indicates that the instrument has been “Selected”.
Graceland pianists may not become more proficient because they play on this piano, but they will certainly walk away with a haunting awareness of divinity. For me, if we are to be judged on Judgment Day by the works of our hands, I want to be playing Steinway #4. Jack said, “Welcome home Steinway #4 to Carol Hall. You deserve each other.”