The year was 1913. Grand Central Station opened. Woodrow Wilson was inaugurated as the 28th president of the United States. The first coast-to-coast paved U.S. highway opened. Charlie Chaplin made his film debut. And about 3,000 pianos were handcrafted by Steinway and Sons. One of them recently ended up at Calvin College.
The nine-foot concert grand was quite a find for Calvin’s piano technician Caleb Tsai, of Baltimore, Md., who heard of the piano through his technician network.
“1913 was a vintage year for Steinways,” said Tsai. “Yet you would expect any piano of that age to be unplayable. This one has the original ivory keys and the original soundboard. It’s really quite miraculous.”
It was previously owned by Richard Kline, of Thurmond, Md., a patron of the arts and one of Tsai’s clients. During a recent downsizing move, Kline had to reduce his piano collection from three to two.
“I heard that he was looking to sell the piano,” said Tsai. “You must understand, though, that a piano has a certain intimacy to it. It’s like a friend or a family member; you want it to go to a good home.”
Tsai immediately suggested Calvin College to Kline. “He was enchanted with the idea,” said Tsai. “He was excited about a buyer that could really use the piano, feature it. He would be able to see that the piano bears fruit.”
Although purchasing a second concert grand piano — the college already owns a Steinway from the 1960s — was in the long-range plan for the music department, it wasn’t necessarily in the budget.
“The ‘house’ Steinway was heavily used,” said Hyesook Kim, Calvin professor of piano. “It’s like shoes; if you wear the same pair all the time, they wear down too much. That’s what was happening to our Steinway.”
... a piano has a certain intimacy to it. It’s like a friend or a family member; you want it to go to a good home.” — Caleb Tsai
Yet purchasing a new Steinway — with a price tag upwards of $85,000 — to complement the first one had been out of the question.
“This, though, was too good of a find to pass by,” said Kim. “Even though much work had to be done on the piano, it was much less than we would have had to spend to get a new one.”
The music department knew that even an older, used Steinway comes with a significant initial cost. Furthermore, reconditioning the old beauty would add to the bottom line.
That’s when the Siegers stepped in.
Rick Siegers ex’71, president and CEO of Siegers Seed Company in Holland, Mich., and his wife, Jill, donated funds to purchase and recondition the Steinway in honor of Rick’s mother, Charlotte Siegers.
“My mother was very adamant about Christian education, and she was a long-time piano instructor,” said Siegers. “It seemed a fitting match to make this musical contribution to a great Christian college as a tribute to my mother. Personally, I’m not very musical, but I love music, and I know that an instrument like this doesn’t come along every day.”
Tsai went to work on the piano earlier this year. “My work is like a sculptor — carving and chipping, trying to find the nature of the piano. This piano has a singing quality, a long sustaining sound. It draws your soul out and makes you want to sing. It’s like a race horse that is dying to come out of the gate.”
The piano officially debuted at Calvin on Sept. 23 at the Faculty Showcase Concert. It will also appear for a solo recital by internationally acclaimed pianist Richard Goode on March 30 as part of Calvin’s Artist Series.
However, the vintage Steinway won’t be reserved only for the professionally accomplished; it will also be available for recitals by students who may or may not be majoring in music.
“My goal is to let students experience what a beautiful piano sound is like,” said Kim. “Most students who are not majoring in piano would have never played on a good nine-foot grand piano,” she said. “Calvin is providing these students with a golden opportunity. It is an experience that will last a lifetime.”
And at 91 years old, the prized instrument is still “youngish on the concert scene,” Tsai said. “When it matures, it is going to be a really fabulous piano.”
— Lynn Rosendale is managing editor of Spark
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