She is sleek, glossy black, and nine feet long. Sitting at her keyboard is like sitting behind the wheel of a new Maserati, and she cost as much as one. Her name is Clara. She is Spivey Hall’s new Hamburg Steinway Model D-274 concert grand piano, and she’s a beauty.
“There are a lot of Honda Accords in the world, and a lot of people who appreciate a Honda Accord,” says Sam Dixon, the executive and artistic director of Spivey Hall. “The artists who come to Spivey Hall are the Maserati drivers of pianos. They really know what a piano can do. They can push the piano’s limits, and they want it to perform in a very particular way because they’ve spent years cultivating their sound and how they interpret music.”
Clara arrived from Germany at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport aboard a Lufthansa cargo flight in the wee hours of Friday morning. Getting through customs was the next long step. Just before noon, the piano was cleared for pickup and movers were on their way to load it onto a truck. From there, it was a 10-mile drive to the loading dock at Spivey Hall, then down a freight elevator and onto the stage, still in its crate.
The slow, careful unpacking and assembly process was like witnessing Atlanta’s queen of recital venues give birth. The much-anticipated, 980-pound “baby” came with a price tag of around $150,000.
The dream of owning a Hamburg Steinway — prized for their more refined action, greater clarity and transparency — began to gestate in 2004.
Spivey already had a pair of New York-built Steinway concert grands. Affectionately known as Emilie and Walter, they were named after local real estate developer couple Emilie and Walter Spivey, whose foundation donated the initial $2.5 million that made the hall possible. But both pianos, although long considered the best of their kind in the region, have their quirks. Of the two, most pianists have preferred Emilie. But despite her beautiful tone and ease of being played, that much-loved instrument has been slowly losing its ability to hold a tuning over the duration of a recital. Walter is a “masculine” piano with a full-horsepower bass register, but the important two octaves above middle C fail to truly sing, and no technical adjustments have succeeded in unlocking its envisioned potential.
“If an organization like Spivey Hall is going to offer a choice of pianos to artists, you want the choice to be a strong and valid artistic option,” Dixon explains. “It was definitely time for us to start acquiring a new piano.”
They looked to the Steinway factory in Hamburg to find an instrument that would especially appeal to the hall’s top tier of guest artists.
It would take six years for the acquisition process to pick up steam. In December, Dixon and pianist Paul Lewis went to the Hamburg factory with Ulrich Gerhartz, director of concert and artist services for Steinway & Sons in London. They were joined by Michael Koch, a Spivey donor and huge piano fan who happened to be in Vienna at the time and who flew up to Hamburg for the day.
After examining a number of Model D-274 grands, they selected Serial No. 591261 — conditionally. The piano was by far the best of the lot, in their judgment, but they had a few concerns and had it brought back to the factory floor to have them addressed. Lewis and Gerhartz returned on January 30 to hear the results. Dixon says that Gerhartz called him before 7 a.m. to say that the piano was now “marvelous, much better than any of us had expected.” The deal was sealed and arrangements made to fly it to Atlanta.
“We believe this is the third Hamburg D in Georgia right now among venues that give concerts publicly,” says Dixon. “There’s one at the Atlanta Symphony, and there’s one at Columbus State University. If there is another Hamburg D in Georgia, it’s probably in a private home.”
The modestly ceremonial unpacking on the Spivey stage was attended by a dozen or so enthusiastic spectators. The huge crate’s corrugated cardboard shell was festooned with cautions about due care in transport, most notably the stern warning “NICHT WERFEN!” (“Do Not Throw!”). All present heeded.
Slowly but surely the instrument was unpacked, the legs and pedal mechanism attached, and the keyboard action unlocked. Once on its feet, Dixon revealed the piano’s name to be “Clara” — chosen both for the instrument’s clarity of sound and in honor of distinguished 19th-century pianist Clara Schumann.
I had the opportunity to sit down at the keyboard and try it out myself, the fourth in line. The piano lives up to its name. The bass register is powerful but speaks distinctly, neither muddy or mushy. The mid-range, where many pianos sound dull and lusterless, has clarity and character. That aforementioned “sweet spot” really sings out, and the uppermost reaches have brilliance without brittleness. The action is quick and responsive, able to handle fast repetitions of a single note.
All that was straight out of the box. Normally, any piano, especially one that has been moved a great distance, must settle into its new home. It must become acclimated to the venue’s climate, tuned multiple times and, most importantly, be voiced for the hall’s acoustics before it is ready to be debuted in a concert.
But those norms went out the window the next evening, when acclaimed Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes presented his scheduled recital at Spivey Hall. After he was given a chance to test-drive the new piano, he insisted upon giving Clara her concert debut. He gave her a genuine workout, with pieces by Haydn, Bartók, Debussy and Chopin, plus a handful of encores that inspired an enthusiastic standing ovation at the end.
“This is, and I’m honest now, this is one of the best Hamburg Steinways I’veever played,” Andsnes told me after the show. “It’s just heaven to play — the action, the evenness, the color. And, of course, this hall is incredible as well. It’s well suited to the hall. With this piano in this hall, I almost cannot imagine a better situation for a pianist playing a recital. It’s very versatile. So I cannot give it enough praise.”