Hours before showtime at UCLA’s Royce Hall, Teri Meredyth leaned into a new Steinway & Sons concert grand piano.
Behind her, stagehands hammered together a stage extension. In front, workers shoved into place wooden panels for a backdrop. Stage left, an electrician shouted to a colleague aiming spotlights.
Meredyth, the hall’s longtime piano technician, pounded the keys of the 9-foot-long grand, listening for off-kilter harmonics. She tweaked tuning pins and pricked felt hammers with a needle to soften them and thus warm the tone that would be produced when they hit the strings.
Amid the commotion, Meredyth struggled to hear the notes.
“I want the pianist to really enjoy what they’re playing,” she said. “If the piano is not helping them or something is going out of tune or the voicing is uneven, they get worried and don’t have their best performance.”
Getting a new piano — even a brilliant Steinway — performance-ready takes time.
Meredyth was tuning and voicing the piano for the third time in two days. That evening, Jeffrey Kahane, music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, would perform the kinetic piano solo in George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”
Kahane had helped select the concert grand. He had performed on it in October, playing Ravel’s jazz-infused Piano Concerto in G. Gershwin’s original jazz band arrangement of “Rhapsody” would be an even bigger test of the piano the Royce Hall crew calls Sapphire.
Royce Hall began its quest for a big-sounding piano in 2010. Its first and only choice was a Steinway, a make dating to 1853 favored by such immortals as Gershwin, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Duke Ellington.
For many years, Royce Hall had relied upon Steinways its staff had affectionately named Diamond, Silver and Ruby. When the hall closed for renovation after the 1994 Northridge earthquake, the school sold Diamond and Silver, and kept Ruby, a workhorse built in 1983, for jazz and solo work.
For classical concerts with elite performers, the 1,800-seat Royce Hall rented Steinways. Eventually, the hall realized that having its own showcase piano could entice more great artists to perform there.
In September 2011, when Kristy Edmunds arrived as the executive and artistic director of the hall’s performing arts series, selecting a Steinway was at the top of her to-do list. A grant and donations would cover the $128,000 cost.
She enlisted four experts, including Kahane and Meredyth. They met that November at the Steinway plant in Long Island City, N.Y.
Meredyth and a Steinway representative in Los Angeles had told factory workers what Royce Hall’s lively acoustics demanded: a piano with great tone and depth, color, projection and what musicians call “sustain,” which refers to how long the tone keeps sounding once a key has been played. Longer is better.
It takes 140 workers about a year to assemble a piano from rock maple, Sitka and white spruce, sugar pine, mahogany, birch and poplar. The results leave abundant room for chance. Every Steinway’s sound is unique.
Steinway assembly workers detected the qualities that would best suit Royce Hall in the piano that bore factory serial number 590993 on the cast-iron plate above the keyboard. They placed it first in a line of half a dozen Model D concert grands inside the factory selection room.
The pianos looked like giant ravens, each with a raised wing. Kahane moved from bench to bench, playing the opening bars of Franz Schubert’s virtuosic Sonata in B-flat major. The work is by turns turbulent and dreamy, and he wanted to hear and feel how each piano handled the subtle gradations of touch it demanded.
Piano No. 590993, in particular, had a lively response to his fingers and produced a rich, deep, clear tone. Kahane kept returning to it, impressed by its range of nuance and color, its ability to express passages from soft and tender to rip-roaring. “It was love at first sound,” he said.
Soon after, Steinway factory workers tuned the concert grand and removed the legs and pedals. They sealed the cabinet in a foil bag, encased the bag in cardboard, placed the pieces in a wooden crate and loaded them onto an 18-wheeler to begin the cross-country journey to the piano’s new home.
In October, UCLA threw a dinner party for Sapphire on the Royce stage. One hundred guests paid as much as $25,000 to dine on pumpkin-carrot soup and salmon; the proceeds will be used to commission work from emerging musicians.
The patrons admired Sapphire’s sinuously curved poplar top, below which lay an elegant pattern of wood, metal and strings, with the bass wires layered diagonally over the tenor. Swatches of bright red “understring cloth” separated wood from metal. Lodged behind the keyboard, out of sight, was the “action,” the complex system of levers that transmits the pianist’s movements to hammers that strike the strings.
Performers that evening included Lana Chae, a UCLA PhD candidate and Steinway devotee whose Westside apartment is so tiny that she sleeps on a futon under her 1905 Steinway Model A. After Sapphire’s arrival last December, she volunteered to spend hundreds of hours breaking in the piano. When she played Sapphire for the first time, she wept.
“She’s so responsive,” Chae said, “and the sustain of the tone is better than any other piano I’ve ever played.”
When not being played in a rehearsal room or onstage, Sapphire stands next to Ruby in a concrete-lined piano “garage” in the sub-basement of Royce Hall, two levels below the stage. Meredyth tunes Sapphire once a month and at least twice on performance days.
On the morning of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra concert, three men loaded Sapphire, protected with a quilted vinyl cover, onto a custom-built dolly. The crew rolled the piano through a rehearsal hall crowded with 6-foot-tall nutcrackers and other props from Debbie Allen’s “Hot Chocolate Nutcracker” production.
They pushed the piano into a freight elevator barely big enough to hold it. One man moved into the space created by the nose’s curve and rode with the piano to stage level while the other two took the stairs. Together they steered the piano through a hallway and down a ramp onto the stage.
The Chamber Orchestra’s program Dec. 9 featured three works with piano. Between pieces and during intermission, as the crowd and musicians chatted, Meredyth walked onstage, stuck her head into the piano and checked for notes that might have been knocked out of tune.
The most vigorous piece, “Rhapsody in Blue,” was reserved for last. Kahane led the orchestra from the keyboard, standing to conduct when he wasn’t playing Gershwin’s syncopated, octave-spanning passages with nearly maniacal abandon. When the horns blared and wah-wahed, Sapphire held its own, the resonant soundboard sending the brilliant melodies and lighthearted motifs to the hall’s furthest reaches.
Kahane ended with a flourish to the audience’s whistles and shouts of “Bravo!”