listen magazine feature
Distant Steinways Tell Diverse Stories
By Brian Wise
Two years since the Italian pianist–composer and Steinway Artist Ludovico Einaudi sought to highlight the effects of climate change by performing his Elegy for the Arctic beside melting glaciers in the Arctic Ocean, the haunting performance video has garnered more than seven million views and still circulates across social media.
Though the video’s stated original purpose — to urge governments at an international conference to establish a Marine Protected Area in the Arctic — didn’t yield results, Greenpeace considers the project a broader win. “It made the whole world talk about the Arctic and that was a really important issue for us,” said Greenpeace Spain spokesperson Marta San Román.
Even for an organization accustomed to battling Japanese whaling fleets and scaling Russian oil rigs, the ten-day, Steinway–toting voyage to a desolate Norwegian archipelago raised eyebrows. “People thought we were crazy,” San Román said. “They were like, ‘you’re doing what with a pianist?’”
Einaudi’s performance — delivered in subfreezing temperatures on a floating platform — shows the publicity value of a well-executed, three-minute video. It also highlights the challenges of moving a complex, thousand-pound instrument to the ends of the earth. Whether undertaken in the service of a charitable cause or out of a desire to commune with nature — be it of Alaska or Easter Island — extreme piano deliveries call on a mixture of ingenuity and brawn.
Photos or It Didn’t Happen
The emergence of well-resourced crossover groups, including Steinway Artists the Five Browns and the Piano Guys, has helped to fuel a social media-age desire for performance videos in remote, sometimes inhospitable locations. Skip Daynes, a Steinway dealer in Salt Lake City, remembers one of the earliest projects, when in 2006 the Five Browns filmed an arrangement of Stravinsky’s The Firebird on Utah’s salt flats. “The Steinways sunk down in the salt flats and so we had to prop them up with two-by-fours,” Daynes recalls. “The three ladies were wearing high-heels and we told them ‘don’t step off from where your pianos are. You’re going to sink in.’”
Several tricky moves later, in 2014, Daynes and his team wheeled a Steinway Model Mto the Homestead, a geothermal hot spring crater, for another video shoot. The floating stage — on which three of the Browns would perform a silky arrangement of Debussy’s Clair de lune — was supported by pontoons over the sixty-five-foot-deep natural pool. “The piano was tipping down as it got on the ramp on the water,” Daynes said of the precarious transfer. “We had to be careful not to drop it in the water.” But Daynes grew up on a ranch and has previously hoisted instruments to the top of a ski lift. “It’s just a matter of: how gutsy are you with a valuable instrument?”
The Early Days of Far-Flung Pianos
Only a handful of concert pianists, including Steinway Artists Mitsuko Uchida and Evgeny Kissin, today tour with their own pianos, says Vivian Chiu, Director of Cultural Partnerships and Artist Services at Steinway & Sons (the practice is more widespread among prominent pop and rock musicians). But during the era of colonialism and westward expansion, large instruments were a Victorian luggage accessory.
The 1915 guidebook South America: A Geography Reader reports how wealthy residents of Sucre, Bolivia — elevation 9,214 feet — would enlist fourmules to transport uprights over the Andes. Similarly, The Complete Indian Housekeeper & Cook, a 1904 manual for servants in India, recommends using several camels when hauling a piano to a family’s summer cottage in the Himalayas. Fictional tales of pianos held in colonial backwaters range from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1904) to Jane Campion’s 1993 film The Piano.
World War II saw the production of Steinway’s “Victory” upright pianos, some three thousand of which were crated and parachuted from cargo planes to U.S. troops awaiting on the ground. Entertainers like Bob Hope used them to help boost the wartime morale. During the final years of the Cold War, Sviatoslav Richter embarked on a six-month road trip to the farthest reaches of Siberia, giving a hundred concerts in remote villages and towns.
Among modern piano moves, few will overshadow the delivery of a baby grand to the Wai Wai, an isolated Amerindian tribe in central Guyana. The tribe first spotted a piano in a magazine left by missionaries and soon persuaded the London–based Scientific Exploration Society to deliver one to their community of thatched huts. A BBC documentary charts the grueling journey of the 770-pound 1930 Boyd, from its arrival in the steamy capital of Georgetown to the final leg involving a motorboat, disease-carrying insects, and the threat of ruthless gold prospectors (two armed guards joined the team).
The organization in 2002 sent a team of three tuners to the Wai Wai but the benefits were evidently short-lived. “The piano played well for several years but eventually the climate affected it,” said Society president John Blashford-Snellin an email to Listen. “When I last saw it in 2010 it was not working, but was kept as a greatly respected item, rather like a totem pole. We took the Wai Wai an [electric] keyboard and a small generator to replace it. This was easier to transport than another grand piano.” Blashford-Snell added that his organization keeps in touch with the Wai Wai, and he has since taken a pedal organ to a tribe in the Bolivian Amazon Basin.
Piano Care on a Rugged Trail
At the Moab Music Festival, located at the gateway to Utah’s Arches and Canyonlands national parks, three chamber music concerts are held each summer in a red-rock grotto on the banks of the Colorado River. Before each performance, a Steinway Model B is transported to the secret location by jet boat. Operations Director Dave Montgomery says that the move starts before dawn, when a team of six to nine workers load the tightly-wrapped instrument onto the boat from a launch site forty-five minutes upstream. At its destination, the instrument is wheeled up a jagged trail on a cart with tractor-like wheels, then set up in the cavernous grotto for a last-minute tuning. Artists arrive, followed by patrons (at a ticket price of $350) and the reverse process occurs at day’s end.
Unexpected boulders, muddy soil and a flooded river bank are among the variables that the Moab crew has faced. “There may be some times where there’s only one piece with a piano and it may be a short piece,” Montgomery notes. “I think, ‘couldn’t they have changed the program?’ But we’ve got to bring the piano. Nothing beats having a Steinway in that place, and how much that blows people away when they see that.”
Sometimes it helps to have a quixotic imagination. Peter Halstead was a well-traveled pianist and poet before he co-founded the Tippet Rise Art Center, a piano-centric music festival in Fishtail, Montana in 2016. His resume includes a 1964 concert in the Nepalese Himalayas, not far from where Alexander Scriabin intended his uncompleted magnum opus Mysterium to be performed. The day after Halstead performed, an avalanche destroyed the embassy — and its piano — where his concert took place.
Halstead wasn’t deterred. In 2011, he arranged to have a Steinway lifted by helicopter to a snowfield six thousand feet up in the Alaska mountain range. While dressed as a yeti (similar to the Abominable Snowman) he made a series of performance videos of Brahms, Strauss and other composers. “It’s sort of a way to introduce kids to classical music but I’m not sure if any kids have seen this,” Halstead wryly admits.
Halstead is also a piano collector who, together with his wife, Cathy Halstead, established Tippet Rise on a ten-thousand-acre sheep and cattle ranch, with climate-controlled facilities for about a dozen pianos. “We gave acoustics and humidity priority over the architecture,” the loquacious Halstead said by phone from his home in Hawaii. “Usually an architect will have the last word on everything for the beauty or ergonomics of the room, but we wanted to be able to have our cake and eat it too.”
The Halsteads hired the engineering firm Arup to design concert facilities including the Olivier Barn, where humidity is maintained at 45 percent through a sophisticated HVACsystem that pumps rainwater-turned-vapor into the room. Among the beneficiaries of this space is the Steinway CD-18, formerly a favorite instrument of Vladimir Horowitz and now a draw for many festival artists.
The Most Remote Music School on Earth
Halstead acknowledges that precisely controlling performance conditions is a luxury unavailable to most. Consider Easter Island, one of the most remote inhabited places on earth. In 2012, Chile-based concert pianist Mahani Teave returned to the island where she spent her early childhood to establish its first music school. Two years later, with the assistance of friends, volunteers and sponsors, she opened a dedicated school building, equipped with ten uprights donated or loaned from as far away as Canada and Poland (the school also teaches cello, ukulele, and violin, as well as traditional singing and dance).
“Some pianos are in better condition than others because I didn’t get to to check them before they came,” said Teave, a Steinway Artist who studied at the Cleveland Institute of Music. “We do need better instruments. Most of the ones we have are very old. We’ve accepted just about everything because we don’t have much of a choice here on the island.”
Indeed, living on a fragile, fifteen-mile-wide island two thousand miles off the coast of Chile brings countless logistic hurdles. Piano transportation was arranged by a student’s mother who owned a freight ship; Teave herself had a 1913 Steinway Model O flown in. Because surrounding roads and sidewalks leading are still unpaved, heavy rains render the school unreachable. “We’re on an island and things are always a lot more challenging,” says Teave. “You always have to have a plan A, B and C. But everybody here vibrates with the music, art and dance. So it’s the place to be doing this.”
This article originally appeared in Listen: Life with Music & Culture, Steinway & Sons’ award-winning magazine.