I recently had the great pleasure of travelling to Hamburg with Alexander Gavrylyuk to personally select two Steinway & Sons concert grand pianos for the 2012 Sydney International Piano Competition.
Before looking at the actual selection process, it’s important to consider why we need to make a selection at all.
As each Steinway & Sons piano is hand-crafted, they each have their own unique identity, with subtle differences in feel and tone. Due to the differences in each piano, we are able to select the instruments based on their intended use; for example, the characteristics of a piano destined for a large concert hall would be different from those required for a smaller, more intimate venue. Different acoustic environments will represent each piano in a unique way.
For the Sydney International Piano Competition, there were some considerations that we needed to take into account. The competitors don’t get time to really practise and familiarise themselves with the instrument; rather, they just have to be ready to jump in and play their best. Also, as you could imagine, the competitors can be quite nervous by the time they get to playing the pianos, so it’s important to have an instrument that is instantly comfortable for them to play, and can easily deliver a big sound, with a large dynamic range.
Selecting the pianos with Alexander Gavrylyuk was a real pleasure. Alexander is a fast pianist and, as I found out, an even faster driver. On our way to Hamburg (from his home in Berlin) Alexander treated me to the full experience of the German Autobahns!
Upon arriving at the Steinway & Sons factory, we were escorted to the piano selection room filled with finished Steinway & Sons pianos. There, we were presented with a total of nine Steinway model D concert grand pianos to choose from — D being the largest model at 274cm.
To help me with my selection, I have developed a kind of selection ritual that I like to use: I do a quick run up and down each piano, listening to the qualities in the different registers. I then play a short piece, and give the pianos a score out of five for their Bass, Mid and Treble registers, as well as an overall score. Spending no longer than 2-3mins on a single instrument, I then move along to the next.
The real advantage of having Alexander Gavrylyuk with me for the selection was that for each piano, I was also able to stand back and listen from a different angle, gaining a different experience of the instrument as Alexander played. He was also able to give me his feedback and impressions as a concert pianist.
Just as we finished working through of the nine pianos available in the selection room, the Steinway team showed us through to the voicing rooms, where two more D’s were undergoing their final preparation, meaning that we had a total of 11 pianos to choose from. Although the two near-finished Ds were incredible instruments, both Alexander and myself arrived at the same choice of two of the pianos from the original nine. We settled on these because of their extraordinary dynamics: the ability to play the softest pianissimo like a kitten purring, and then instantly roar like a lion at the next breath... All without distortion or sounding like glass breaking. Steinways are known for their dynamic capabilities, but we were looking for that little bit extra that can be recognised instantly when in a comparative situation as in the selection room.
Now that we have made our choice, Steinway will carry out some final preparation on the two Ds, when they will then be crated and flown out to Sydney, arriving at the Theme & Variations Piano Services showroom by the end of May in time for the International Piano Competition fever!
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Prior to founding Theme & Variations Piano Services in 1985, now the exclusive dealer for Steinway & Sons in New South Wales and Queensland, Ara was lecturer in charge at the School of Piano Tuning & Technology at Sydney Conservatorium of Music. He has gained vast experience studying with many piano manufacturing companies around the world including Steinway, Yamaha, Bösendorfer and Bechstein.
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