The piano that Nelson Freire will play on this week and next is a new Steinway that the Baltimore Symphony bought this past spring after a year-long search.
For years the BSO had been leasing Hamburg-made Steinways at a cost of $8,000 a year. The orchestra owned its own pianos -- a New York Steinway and a Viennese Bosendorfer -- but almost all of the pianists who came here didn't like them and the orchestra couldn't afford the money, now about $70,000, to buy a new instrument. So it was caught in the position of losing money through leases because it couldn't afford to make a larger purchase.
Enter the Hunt Valley-based Sheridan Foundation, which gave the BSO a $40,000 grant last year toward the purchase of a new piano. But buying a piano isn't as simple as it sounds.
An instrument that has the brute force for Bartok may not be delicate enough for Mozart. And instruments that might be appropriate for each of those composers might not have the requisite combination of power and beauty needed for Rachmaninov or Brahms. Most very rich orchestras buy two different instruments for exactly those reasons, but the BSO didn't have the luxury of doing that. It would have to find one instrument that provided as many of the necessary qualities as possible.
The orchestra asked two prominent pianists who are frequent guest soloists here -- Richard Goode and Garrick Ohlsson -- to visit the Steinway basement together. They're very different sorts of pianists -- Goode, an elegant Mozart-Beethoven player, and Ohlsson, a thunderous Rachmaninov-Prokofievplayer -- and each felt that one instrument in particular had special qualities that would sound especially good in Meyerhoff Hall. The instrument was then sent to Baltimore on a trial basis, where it was performed on by several pianists, including Mitsuko Uchida, who found it ideal for Mozart, and Yefim Bronfman, who liked it in Liszt. The BSO put off making a final decision about the piano until Baltimore's own Leon Fleisher tried it out on a Sunday morning in April.
"Leon fell in love with it," says BSO artistic administrator Miryam Yardumian, herself a fine pianist, "and that's when we made a commitment to Steinway that we wanted to buy it."