Sounds like a winner

Pianist Bronfman picks out a Steinway for the University of Baltimore

December 11, 2005|By TIM SMITH | TIM SMITH,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

NEW YORK / / Like soldiers at attention, lined up for a drill master's inspection, five grand pianos -- each 9 feet long, weighing in at 990 pounds, with about 12,000 individual parts -- sat along the wall of the nondescript, low-ceilinged selection room at the Steinway & Sons factory in Queens.

The inspector, acclaimed Russian-born pianist Yefim Bronfman, calmly approached the formation and, progressing from left to right, put each instrument to the test -- rapid scales up and down the length of the keyboard, punchy chords, gentle phrases.

Forty minutes later, with Bronfman's judgment as guide, the University of Baltimore was the proud owner of a factory-fresh concert grand, price tag "in the mid-80s," said UB president Robert Bogomolny. (That's after an institutional discount off a retail price closer to $100,000.)

Sometime in early 2006, the piano will be hoisted by a crane into its new home -- the top-floor, 200-seat concert hall of the $20 million, five-story student center on the university's campus in downtown Baltimore. (It's on the site of the 1915 Odorite building, whose demolition preservationists fought unsuccessfully.)

Construction should be completed by the end of January. An inaugural performance of chamber music is slated for April, featuring the noted Beaux Arts Trio. A variety of public concerts is envisioned in the space each season.

UB, which offers junior- and senior-year undergraduate studies and graduate programs, has no music program. But the hall may make possible such things as an annual residency for young visiting artists and cooperative ventures with nearby arts organizations.

"We're located in Baltimore's cultural district," said Peter Toran, UB's vice president of planning and university relations, "and we want to be active participants in it."

The new concert hall reflects "my belief that broadening one's horizons brings value to life," Bogomolny said after closing the piano deal. "I want to expose our students to music. "

The Steinway grand Bronfman singled out should prove a compelling vehicle for such exposure. It's a decidedly potent instrument, with a bright, ringing tone, ideal for Bronfman's own power-to-spare pianism.

"I'm a little bit worried that it will be too loud in the hall," the pianist said. "Of course, a piano can never be too loud in my opinion."

Bronfman's opinions on pianistic issues are highly valued, especially in the selection room at the Steinway factory. "I've been to this room many times and done this quite often," Bronfman said.

A couple of years ago, he and another exceptional keyboard artist, Richard Goode, helped the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra decide on two Steinways -- one for its home base, the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, another for the new Music Center at Strathmore in Montgomery County.

Bronfman's advice has been offered abroad as well. "In Europe, at Steinway's Hamburg factory, I just selected one for Berlin Philharmonic," he said.

For more than 150 years, Steinway has been building pianos, each one taking about a year's worth of labor. And although the ebony-cased models that end up in concerts halls look essentially the same, each sounds different, the inevitable result of a product almost entirely hand-made.

"It is always a tough choice," Bronfman said after making his recommendation for the UB purchase. "It is very rare to find an ideal piano that satisfies everything. That happens only once every 10 years."

For Bogomolny and other school officials, all novices at buying concert grands, getting Bronfman's input was invaluable. And economical.

"He doesn't charge a fee for this," Bogomolny said. "I find that astonishing. His manager said all we needed to do was provide private transportation for him" to and from Manhattan.

Once Bogomolny and a few other observers were seated in the selection room, Bronfman issued a request -- "I suggest that you don't make any comments; just listen." He then commenced to whittle down the candidates in calm, methodical fashion, his face never changing its serious expression.

No. 1, on the far left, immediately impressed with the brightness of its sound, Nos. 2 and 3 with the mellowness of theirs. No. 4 had a comparatively dull characteristic. No. 5 was closer to No. 1, but not quite as alive or even.

At one point, Bronfman started playing the thunderous opening chords of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1. He stopped in mid-phrase on piano No. 1 and scrambled to the bench at No. 2 to pick up where he had left off; he repeated the process down the line.

Bold arpeggios from a Beethoven concerto and lyrical musings from a Chopin nocturne were likewise tried out in sequential fashion. Sometimes, Bronfman cocked his head to one side while he played, as if to give a single ear extra input.

Eventually, the pianist asked for reactions.

Bogolmolny: "I'm hesitant to speak, but my own sense is that the ones on either end are the best."

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