I know I’m not the only person harboring a secret love affair with the piano. I’ve decided to tell all here because my private obsession has led to a public unveiling of an unusual Levenger object: our Carnegie Hall bookend.
A rube and a Rubinstein
Where my infatuation came from, I don’t actually know. Not from being a student of the piano, because I never took a lesson and never played. It’s odd that I didn’t, since we had a baby grand in our home when I was growing up that my mother played.
Had I expressed an interest in learning piano, I’m sure my mother would have been delighted, but it was smaller instruments I wanted to try, so after throttling the neck of a violin and puckering on the end of a reedy clarinet, I finally put a trumpet to my lips and blew. I liked it.
I still revel in the greats of the horn, as, for example, those blowing the doors off their hinges and sweet-talking your soul on the recent Grammy nominated CD, To Fred with Love. Even so, it is the piano that has me in its hammers.
As a pajama-clad boy, I’d fall asleep while my mother practiced Bach and Chopin. Especially ingrained in my memory is Chopin’s Waltz No. 2 in C-Sharp Minor. My mother would slow at its sweeping grand staircase of notes and ascend it imperfectly, rarely getting to the top without stumbling. I’d fill in the right notes in my head as I drifted off.
It must have been around 1970 when my mother got us tickets to hear Arthur Rubinstein at the San Diego Civic Center. I remember the waves of standing ovations for the great man, already in his 80s, to the point where it was embarrassing. Maybe we’re just hicks here in San Diego, I thought, and wondered if at Carnegie Hall, the audience would have filed out the doors already, content with just another transcendent concert.
A promise to Otto
When we moved Levenger from our Boston townhouse to real offices in Delray Beach, Florida, in 1987, I encountered another great elder statesman, about Rubenstein’s age. He had written a book that Levenger sold called The Delights of Reading. His name was Otto Bettmann.
Otto had founded the Bettmann Archives, the first company to sell photos to publishers. He sold his business (it is now part of Corbis) and moved to Florida to pursue his other passions—rare books and the piano. I visited his apartment one Saturday with my son Cal, who was then four. Otto sat Cal on the piano bench beside him as he played Bach on his big black concert grand.
“My parents forced me to learn piano and I hated it. I wish I could tell them now how much I love it,” Otto said. He had been born in Bach’s hometown of Leipzig and now played Bach every morning. Otto made me promise I would make Cal and his younger brother, Corey, play piano. “Even if your sons rebel, you must force them,” he advised, in his slight German accent.
It was an easy promise to agree to since we were about to move into our new home in Delray Beach, and I had already decided to buy a piano. My promise to Otto to torture my sons provided another excuse.
Of course, it couldn’t be just any piano. I became fixated on the most famous brand, Steinway. I knew there were more expensive pianos, like the Bösendorfer. But the very word—Steinway—is synonymous with Piano, and I knew I would have no other.
Breakfast at Steinway’s
Of course I’ve never gone in. A salesman might ask if I wanted to play one. What I wanted to do was something more unusual.
In my imagination, the conversation with the Steinway salesman would go like this:
Salesman, wearing a dark suit: “May I help you?”
“Yes. Please find an exceptionally talented pianist, preferably a woman who has seen a lot of life and is wise—and especially tolerant—and have her play Rachmaninoff No. 2 on this concert grand, while I lie on the carpet under it. After the opening minutes, I’ll rise and put my head inside, under the lid, so I can watch the hammers blurr up and down and breathe in the sound, as a dog breathes in the wind while he sticks his head out the window, and then, while she continues to play ever so beautifully, I want to gently close the lid, and I will bend at the waist and lie face down on the closed piano with my arms stretched out, hugging it, allowing the vibrations to enter my heart like shocks from the paddles in an ICU. Then, in the last few minutes, I’d like to sit in a chair a few feet from her, watching her hands and body so I can marvel at God’s symphony, and after she finishes, I want to leap to my feet and clap for her loudly while she comes out of her trance, stands, smiles and bows, and then I’d like to embrace her, kiss her on both cheeks, and hand her a bouquet of two dozen white roses, which you’ll have ready for me. After that, I’ll sit down at your desk and write out a check for the piano.”
The salesman would have listened patiently, without much reaction, and would then say:
“Sure, Martha’s right in the back, fixing her hair. One minute, please.”
Fearing to enter Steinway’s New York store for reasons you now know, I set my mind on researching the Steinway options and buying one from a dealer in Florida.
The music staircase to heaven
I didn’t want a new piano but rather, one with a heritage, with a story, one whose keys had already traveled miles and miles of songs. I figured such a piano would have a soul, and in the hands of a good pianist, could more easily ascend the music staircase to heaven.
I wanted our house filled with piano music—real, acoustic music—music made from centuries of refining how felt-covered hammers strike their strings and how those vibrations are amplified and resonated by metal and wood in some ways that can be explained by science and other ways still mysterious, and sent forth shuddering into the air and our ears and our souls.
So I located the Steinway dealer at the time, Hale Piano in Fort Lauderdale, and learned that they had plenty of beautifully reconditioned pianos. So far, so good.
But I faced a serious challenge.
I knew from my trumpet playing days that each instrument is different—you had to play a number of them to find your soul mate. How was I going to buy my piano soul mate when I couldn’t play?
Through my musician friend Steve Slaman, I was introduced to pianist David Carlson. David had had a long orchestral and solo career and was, Steve assured me, something of a nut when it came to his instrument.
Together David and I went to the Steinway gallery in Fort Lauderdale, where there were dozens of reconditioned instruments lined up for trial.
Through David, I learned that I should get a piano over a certain size, which was necessary to have the bass resonate with authority. It didn’t have to be the massive concert grands that Glenn Gould would play at Carnegie Hall, but just a thoroughly professional model, like Dave Brubeck or Nat King Cole or Keith Jarrett would expect to find in a recording studio. It also had to be newer than the mid-1960s in order to have something called accelerated action.
David and I made several trips to the Steinway gallery. He would play some piece that sounded exquisite to me and then suddenly just stop and shrug and move to another piano. I couldn’t tell if my salesman was annoyed or amused, but he was patient with this odd couple.
Finally the salesman, knowing I wanted an instrument with a story, called me one day to say a famous piano was fresh out of reconditioning, and we ought to come check it out. “I think you’re going to like this one,” he added.
When David and I arrived, the salesman told us the story of how this instrument, a full-sized, matte-black Steinway, had been for a dozen years at a jazz club at a local hotel. It was the place to perform in Fort Lauderdale. Untold numbers of famous players had used this Steinway and famed singers had been accompanied by it. But the hotel had finally closed and sold off the piano, which Hale bought and then brought back to its next life.
David sat down and played. Slowly a smile appeared on his face. He played more and louder, and higher and lower, and softly and then stopped. He turned to me. “This is it,” he said.
…with a different ending
The next day I brought Lori to the showroom to show her the new member of our family. As I walked her down the center aisle of the showroom, she turned her head to the right and said, “Wow, isn’t that one pretty?”
She was looking at a natural mahogany piano with a beautifully detailed case.
“Yes, it’s pretty, but that’s not what this is about,” I said, and kept her moving toward my prize.
But I knew that look in her face, and saw her cast her glance back at the pretty one.
Reluctantly, I followed her over to it. Pretty it was, and yes, it would match our home perfectly. I pointed out it was too small and too old. But she had fallen in love with it, the way I had with mine. With sadness in my heart, I agreed to bring David back to play the pretty piano.
He soon gave me the answer I expected. “It’s not as good,” he said. “But you know what? It’s a Steinway, and it’s lovely, and any pianist you have to your house will be thrilled to play it.”
And so that’s the piano, Model No. 198320, born in 1919, that came to our home in 1998 and that our dear friend Eric Wainscott played beautifully at our New Year’s party to ring in the new millennium.
Alas, our sons are now grown and gone and I failed Otto by not torturing them enough to learn on our piano. Talents they have, but not at the keyboard. Over the years, I’ve hired professionals to come play it, which gives me great satisfaction. And religiously, every fall, I have it tuned by Karl Roeder, formerly of the Steinway factory in New York, and now the most sought-after tuner in South Florida.
While my own sons didn’t take to our musical hearth, a neighbor girl has swept me off my feet. Her name is Esme Hurlburt, and someday she will be a famous opera singer, but she plays piano too, and I’ve hired her occasionally to do her practicing at our house. I sit in another room, out of her sight, and just listen and let my heart fill up till it overflows, and that way Esme doesn’t see me wiping my eyes.
When we developed our bookend with Carnegie Hall, we wanted an iconic instrument on its stage, and it could be no other than a Steinway grand piano. You’ll find this bookend with a story to tell at the Carnegie Hall gift shop, at Levenger, and, I hope, in the homes of others who love the piano.