When the Steinway concert grand pianos are played on stage for the opening night of the Clayton Center for the Arts, four people on hand for the event will already know how good the pianos sound.
Fred and Jane Tolhurst will be in the audience but it won’t be the first time they will have enjoyed the Steinways. The couple traveled to New York City Dec. 11 and 12 to watch as Dr. Robert Bonham and Dr. Bill Swann picked the pianos for the center.
Swann is a jazz piano professor at Maryville College and plays with the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra. Bonham is a piano professor emeritus at the school. The college charged them with the responsibility of picking the two pianos to be placed in the Clayton Center for the Arts.
Steinway Piano Gallery in Nashville owner Bill Metcalf and his son-in-law Brandon Herrenbruck also traveled to New York to watch as the pianos were chosen and heard the two professors give an impromptu performance at the Steinway factory.
Bonham said when the entire group was doing a three-hour factory tour, he and Swann were pulled away from the group one at a time to spend an hour playing the seven different pianos in the Selection Room.
“When we were doing the selecting, they asked us to do our evaluations separately,” he said. “In the end our number one choice was unanimous. We were choosing between seven instruments,” he said.
In the room alone each time, both Swann and Bonham played loud, soft and delicate tones – a variety of different situations to see how the pianos reacted. “The one we picked as the number one had clear singing tone and had more voice,” Bonham said. “It was a little louder and this is the one being named for Sen. Alexander’s family.”
Swann said he enjoyed that time playing each of the pianos while making his selection. “They basically closed the door and said do whatever you want to do. I moved from piano to piano playing and trying to figure out what piano would best fit our needs at the college, and surprisingly Robert and I came to an agreement quickly,” he said. “We did it double blind. He went into the room by himself for an hour and I did same. It turns out our first choices were the same and the second choice didn’t take much negotiation at all. So it was a blast.”
When the two professors had settled on their choices, the rest of the group got the chance to hear the pair play the new pianos in the Selection Room.
Jane Tolhurst said Swann sat down and played jazz on the piano he selected and Bonham played classical on the other one. “We stood there with our mouths open and the president of Steinway was with us for that entire last step,” she said.
Fred Tolhurst said he will always remember the experience. “I especially enjoyed getting to hear the two pianos played for the first time after they were selected. That was a great treat,” Fred Tolhurst said.
Jane Tolhurst was an encyclopedia of knowledge about the piano company and the family that moved from Germany to New York City to build the factory on what now covers 40 blocks of property in Queens.
Seeing so much of the community named after Steinway reminded Jane Tolhurst of how Alcoa, Inc., has such a deep influence on Blount County. Many of the businesses in Queens are named after Steinway just like Blount businesses and even the town are named after the aluminum company. “Steinway dominates Queens. There are diners, delis, dry cleaners named after Steinway, there was even a Steinway Street,” she said. “It’s pretty amazing. It is like Alcoa is to this area – Steinway permeates everything in Queens.”
Jane Tolhurst said that as they drove up to the factory, the house where the company’s founder lived was still on the property and was part of the facility. “That’s where we made the selections. You start to become overwhelmed. You pull up to the front door and it looks like a house. It has a picket fence,” she said.
Seven pianos were in the Selection Room. “You can’t imagine that you wouldn’t be happy with any one but the idea is they’re as individualized as people,” she said.
Jane Tolhurst said both pianos had to sound good together to make sure tone and voicing was compatible. “They’re both going on the main stage for the Saturday night opening and in the recital hall the following Sunday afternoon,” she said.
The Tolhursts organized the Grand Players Society as a way for people in the community to raise money to purchase two Steinway grand pianos. The six-week campaign raised more than $200,000 and Sen. Lamar Alexander wrote a check to cover the cost of one piano to be named in honor of his parents. The Tolhursts were invited on the factory because of their efforts to raise the money, she said.
The entire group participated in the three-hour tour and it was during that time the company president walked with them.
“The factory tour was really fantastic. They took us through almost every step of construction of a Steinway grand piano - from the bending of wood for the frame to installation of the sound board to the bridge,” Fred Tolhurst said.
Fred Tolhurst said what impressed him most was the craftsmen-like way individual steps were done by hand. “We were told, and I don’t have any reason to disbelieve this, 250 different people touch every concert grand before it’s finished,” he said. “We saw many, many people doing very fine craftsmen-like work with hand tools.”
Swann said they spent two or three hours touring the factory and the company president showed them just about every step of construction. “That was a really cool experience and getting to see how long it takes to take piece of wood and turn it into something as complicated as a large Steinway piano that was great,” he said.
Bonham said he considers himself fortunate to have been able to have visited the factory. “For every pianist, an opportunity to visit a Steinway factory is a life-long dream,” he said. “You can’t just walk into the factory.”
Bonham said Steinway has a reputation for excellence. “That was a wonderful experience to watch them making the instruments. So much is still hand-made and not many still do that,” he said.
The professor said it takes about a year to build the types of pianos he and Swann were selecting. “We got to see them bending one of the frames that goes around the piano and they only do one a day. After they bend it they leave it in a mold form for 24 hours and in a drying room for eight months,” he said. “Manufacturing is extremely meticulous and the wood itself is highly selected. Most of the wood they get they reject.”
Bonham said what he was most impressed with was the workers themselves. “Maybe the greatest quality of the Steinway factory is not the machines and materials so much as the craftsmen they have working there,” he said. “They go through an apprenticeship learning from each other. It’s an old world concept still living there.”
Jane Tolhurst said the pianos would be shipped to either the Knoxville or Nashville locations of American Piano Gallery. From there they would be delivered to Maryville College. The Tolhursts have a Steinway they bought years ago and Jane Tolhurst said when she and her husband learned the civic arts center was going to be built, they wanted Steinways on stage at the facility. “We just had to see that Steinways were on the stage because we had to have the best for this fabulous facility,” she said. “They couldn’t use their old pianos.”
Fred Tolhurst said having Steinways adds to the credibility of the center for attracting quality jazz and classical keyboard artists. “There are many, many professional artists who only use Steinway pianos. Now we have two concert grands and it also just gives the center credibility when you are attracting prospective students,” he said. “We’re not alumni, we’re cheerleaders. I’m hoping the presence of Steinway grands will help make piano at Maryville College more attractive for prospective students and faculty.”
Swann said it was critical they get top notch pianos and he thanked the Tolhursts for their work in fundraising and working with donors. “That kind of fundraising effort is daunting and I applaud the Tolhursts for taking it on. I’m glad they are out there doing that work for the college and making sure we have got good instruments,” he said. “We ended up with two really great pianos.”