Steinway and Daughter

I’ve had Steinways on the mind lately. First appearance was ushering for the incomparable Ahmad Jamal at Hill Auditorium. Jamal is a musician’s musician, which means that he is, as Saroyan says, “utterly unknown, but very famous.” One of my favorite people ever, Miriam, the head usher, said, “You don’t know Ahmad Jamal? You must google Poinciana.” The 80+ year-old master played it as the last piece before the encore. Miriam is right. It is revelatory.

Then, just a few days later, Anthony Tommasini published this video tribute to my hero, Stephen Sondheim. Tommasini is a terrific music writer, but also a very lovely man. He sent me a kind note when I wrote to him about an obit for documentarian Nathan Kroll, who I had the privilege of working with on Martha Graham films; not often an NYT writer writes you back. Tommasini here shows himself to be an excellent pianist, and check out the keyboard. All in all, lovely work.

After the Teton Dam failure destroyed the first floor of my father’s childhood home in Idaho, with our George Steck baby grand turned upside down in the mud on what had been the front lawn, Mom and Dad replaced it with an investment: a Steinway. They did it for me. At the time, I showed some promise as a classical pianist. Certainly, I was passionate. Mom has said that, rather than having to nag me to practice, she had to nag me to stop; certainly, as a shy and slightly obsessive child, I found enormous solace in practicing scales, Czerny, and Burgmüller. Once in high school, theater called. It was easier; there are no scales, no finger fatigue, none of the tedium and boredom of practice. But the Steinway – and Beethoven, Bach, Debussy, and Gershwin – were always there when I needed solace.

Theater was sexier than piano. But when my first husband, Karl, got sick, I couldn’t act, and Mom and Dad saw that I had the funds to rent a piano. Years after he died, I saw in one of Karl’s letters that he had written, “Nancy looks so serene when she plays the piano. Her back is so straight.” It’s one of the loveliest things anyone has ever written about me.

So he died. Alone in Key West, I didn’t know what to do. Through my dear and departed friend Felix, I fell into a job as Music Director for “Nunsense.” It’s habit-forming! A silly show, but a nice chance to pound the hell out of a keyboard – in this case, the piano I’d been renting with Karl, transported to the theater.

One day, practicing scales, a voice with a thick Russian accent stopped me.

“Why are you doing that?”

“What?”

“Scales.”

“I need to warm up.”

Out of the shadows, an older man appeared, about 60, with a gray beard. “You should take lessons from me.”

It clicked. This was Yehuda Guttmann, a Key West legend. Yehuda had won the Julliard competition at 18, but had never landed a recording contract; the one he was offered was from Baldwin, not Steinway, and he rejected it. Yehuda played on his Steinway, a concert grand (Mom and Dad’s was a parlor grand, slightly smaller than a baby grand) with the sensitivity of Ashkenazy, a friend who would drop in on occasion; I begged to accidentally drop in at the same time, and Yehuda simply shook his head and smiled kindly. His aunt had been Perlman’s violin teacher. He was part of a small dynasty. He was an extraordinary musician. If he’s still alive, it would be one of my fondest dreams to see him.

Yehuda took me under his wing. He offered to teach me for free, I insisted on paying him all I could, ten bucks an hour, which he graciously accepted. When I proudly told him I could give him a raise to 15, he said, “Thank you. This means a lot to me.” Only in the years since have I realized how much, and how deeply he understood what the extra five bucks an hour meant to me. He once said to me, “You’re playing those keys as if you’re shaking hands with someone you don’t know that well. Start playing like you’re touching the hand of someone you want to make love to.” Over the first 12 notes of a Chopin nocturne (E minor), he told me that I needed to stop “playing” them and start thinking of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Fantasia, and how the sorcerer conjures a butterfly from thin air. “That’s what you’re doing now.”

He was an extraordinary teacher. Several years later, I took Katrina to Key West and they met. He loved her and constructed origami frogs out of the napkins at the restaurant where we met. 3 at the time, she stills remembers him.

A few years later, when we were living in NY, Mom called me and said she needed to sell the Steinway. It is the only time I have, sort of, hung up on my mother. I was devastated, and told her I couldn’t talk. Within 30 seconds, she called back to say that she had no idea that piano meant so much to me, and that I simply needed to find a home for it.

I did. My dear friend, Gordon, had been a student of Claudio Arau, played better than I could ever dream, and had a big enough apartment with a big enough elevator in Brooklyn to take it on. He agreed to house the piano for me as long as needed.

When Dennis, the kids and I had to leave NY due to lack of funds, I was in frequent touch with Gordon. We were devastated financially. Gordon bought the piano. It was one of the kindest things anyone has ever done for me. It helped me get a place to stay for me and the kids until Dennis came to Michigan. It helped us live. I am deeply and forever grateful.

In the years since, I’ve bought a completely crappy spinet that is currently out of tune, but that I still pound the hell out of and that still, perhaps now more than ever, provides the deep contentment that a musician can find only in his or her instrument of choice. I’ve visited Gordon and the Steinway. He’s taken exceptionally good care of it. I dream of it, but don’t know that I’ll ever have room for it or a way to get it back. And to be truthful, it has found the perfect home, with someone who understands its value and plays it with great love. Gordon can play Ravel’s Scarbo, a piece that gives professional musicians pause, much less amateurs like myself. There is no one with whom I could entrust that instrument to more.

As for me, whenever I see a “Steinway & Sons artist”, as I did in the Ahmad Jamal program, I think of Yehuda, I think of my parents, I think of Gordon, and I think of the extraordinary gift that is music, in whichever way it is experienced and shared. What grace, what love, what dedication and devotion is evident in those 88 keys, whether felt, seen, or heard. Truly, life is beautiful.

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