- Associated Press - Sunday, October 1, 2017

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - To a concert pianist, choosing and purchasing a piano is kind of like choosing a spouse. You spend much of your life with it, so you want to pick wisely.

“Every piano is different, like a human being. Each has its own soul,” said Washington Garcia, concert pianist and director of the School of Music at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “You have to give it time. Practice. If you hit it hard, it will hit back. If you treat it nice, it will be kind to you.”

Garcia, 40, performed his first piano concert at age 7. He’s been playing ever since. And in his 33-year career, he has chosen several pianos, the Omaha World-Herald reported .

The latest was a concert grand for the main hall in the Strauss Performing Arts Center at UNO, a gift to the school from several area philanthropists Garcia calls “the piano angels.”

He declined to reveal the cost of the piano, though similar instruments retail for up to $160,000. It takes its place among a limited number of concert grand pianos in the Omaha metropolitan area. There are two at the Holland Center and one each at the Orpheum Theater and the Omaha Conservatory of Music, but it’s unclear where others might live.

UNO’s new prize, an exceedingly shiny, 9-foot-long, black Steinway, arrived last month from New York City.

Selecting the instrument was an experience not unlike picking out an engagement ring, with the same personal touch. Garcia and new UNO assistant professor of piano Kristín Jónína (pronounced Kristeen Yonina) Taylor traveled to the Steinway & Sons factory in Queens, where company officials had assembled five pianos for their perusal in a large, acoustically appropriate room.

“It’s not a piece of equipment that you just order online,” Garcia said.

And selection is not a solitary pursuit. Ideally the process requires two sets of ears, he said.

Garcia bought from Steinway & Sons for its reputation as one of the top piano makers. German immigrant Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg, later known as Henry E. Steinway, founded the company in 1853 in Manhattan. In addition to its New York facility, Steinway has a factory in Hamburg, Germany. The two locations combined produce about 3,400 pianos a year, and it takes a year to build each one.

“Steinway is often considered the Cadillac of the piano world, but you could take any high-end car - there are some (Steinways) that are definitely like playing a Ferrari,” said Taylor, a concert pianist and professor who came to UNO three months ago from Waldorf University in Forest City, Iowa. Through an agreement with Steinway & Sons, both Taylor and Garcia are designated Steinway artists; under the pact, presenting groups make every effort to procure a Steinway piano for each concert they play, no matter where they are.

Noted current Steinway artists include jazz performers Harry Connick Jr. and Diana Krall, rocker Billy Joel and classical pianists Lang Lang and Daniel Barenboim. Past designees include Benjamin Britten and George Gershwin.

As a designee, Taylor said, she performs on a Steinway about 80 percent of the time.

UNO had a Steinway concert grand on the Strauss stage, but it was elderly and in rough shape. When Garcia arrived at UNO in 2016 he arranged to replace it with a borrowed Yamaha concert grand from Keyboard Kastle, but the Yamaha went back to the store when the season ended this spring.

Enter the piano angels: When Council Bluffs philanthropist Bob Schlott heard about UNO’s need for a new concert grand, he assembled a group of area donors to provide the funding.

Garcia and Taylor had a single mid-July day in New York to take a truncated tour of the factory and then pick the piano. It was challenging: Each piano reacts differently when played. Are the pedals hard or easy to maneuver? Do the keys respond to both soft and hard touches? Is the sound bright or dull?

“Acoustically, every piano is different, like a human being,” Garcia said.

A piano’s sound also depends on where it lives - in a studio, a living room, a large stage. So they had to determine which instrument would be the best fit for the Strauss recital hall.

Garcia and Taylor played each piano without talking to each other, then compared notes. They thought about their students and the recital space and tried to assess how each piano would behave when it wasn’t so “green” - the instruments are not at their peak when they’re new.

“Pianos get better with age if they’re well taken care of,” Garcia said.

Kind of like husbands and wives.

It’s not productive to look at a lot of pianos. They limited it to five on this trip, and you probably should never consider more than seven.

“Too many and your ears get contaminated,” Garcia said.

The pianists eliminated two pianos after the initial round, then discussed the remaining three. They tested the responsiveness of each by timing its continuous sound as they plucked on strings while sustaining the pedal. The standard is 10 seconds of constant sound. They tested the weight of the keys to see if they were up to specifications. They assessed how the pianos handled musical dynamics such as pianissimo (very soft) and mezzo forte (very loud).

They eliminated one more, then had to compromise.

“In the end, both pianos were wonderful,” Garcia said.

The new piano will offer an extraordinary experience for students, faculty members and visiting artists such as participants in UNO’s International Concert Series, now in its second year. Garcia has set up parameters for who can play it and when: It’s not for daily practice, for instance, but it will be used for student recitals and other programs, he said.

A piano education is more than learning the notes. Accomplished pianists know how to coax nuance and emotion out of a keyboard, though many pianos are temperamental.

“Too often, pianists have to fight the instrument instead of playing it. If it’s too bright (with sound that’s hard to manipulate), there’s very little you can do,” Taylor said.

The new Strauss piano is a pianist’s best friend.

“This instrument is so lovely,” she said. “It has beautiful tone colors, but you can definitely turn the gas on with it and it will do what you want it to do.”

It will give students a better chance to experiment, to see what works on a world-class piano and what doesn’t, she said.

The piano also got an excellent review from concert pianist Julian Martin, a professor at the Juilliard School who performed at Strauss earlier this month.

“He absolutely loved the instrument,” Taylor said.

Garcia gets emotional about the acquisition. He’s grateful to the donors who made it possible and views it as a sign that he made the right decision to come to Omaha - and the right decision to stay, even though he’s received two inquiries about jobs on the coasts in the past year.

“I love UNO and I believe in its present and future,” he said. “I’ve visited 35 states, and the Omaha community is unique. I’ve never been in a community that feels so strongly about helping each other. People are constantly looking for ways to help. I feel humbled and honored that (the donation) was honoring me as the first director of the School of Music. It’s nice when someone believes in what you are doing and that you are going to impact society in a good way.”

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Information from: Omaha World-Herald, https://www.omaha.com

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