Goldberg Variations at Steinway Hall, Saturday, April 28, 2007

Beth Levin

[May 2007.]


Wary of its illustrious ghosts, I’ve resisted rehearsing in New York City’s Steinway Hall. Overcoming my reluctance, at six o’clock on Saturday I entered the glass doors and was instantly overwhelmed by a chandelier worthy of any Tsarist palace. I learned later that it replaced one that fell, damaging an old Steinway D. Joseph Steinway, working in his office when he heard the crash, ran out yelling, “What happened to my piano?”

The chairs were arranged in concert fashion, and the recording engineer was setting up. The smell of flowers filled the room. I quickly tried out the American Steinway that would see me through the Goldbergs. Over the past year I’d been performing on a Petrov in Iceland, a quirky Steinway at Boston’s WGBH studio, various living room instruments, and of course on my own 1978 Steinway workhorse. Often I would walk to the Conservatory in my Park Slope neighborhood at nine in the morning just to be alone with a certain Estonia in Studio 42. Because its action is so different from my Steinway’s, I can never be sure that rehearsing on it does me much good. But its uniformity of touch is a steady source of encouragement. The exquisite piano I’d be playing this night among the gilt, flowers and oriental carpets felt like a gift. The instrument’s responsiveness was so complete!

Following a cordial greeting, Sarah Steinhardt, a Steinway representative as well as a serious pianist, guided me to the Rachmaninoff Room on the second floor, which would serve as my green room. Steinway Hall’s upstairs corridor, lined as it is with pictures of legendary pianists, fairly throbs with history. Sarah mentioned that just this week Radu Lupu and Jean-Yves Thibaudet had been practicing here. With a painting of Rachmaninoff looking on and a lovely piano for warming up, I began a transformation, street attire to blue chiffon gown and satin pumps. The transformation’s emotional aspect bridged a quotidian existence to the opening Aria’s heights.

Peeking over the balcony, I watched the audience arriving. I love the sound of pre-concert chatter and people finding their seats. In its own way, it’s a comforting music. Promptly at 7:30 Sarah gave a short speech as I waited at the bottom of the stairs. Fired by desire and the arduous preparation that went with this evening’s appearance, I was eager to begin. Weaving my way through the seats to the sound of applause, I arrived at the piano and bowed. I was not so much nervous as expectant and exhilarated. The melody’s opening G came as a relief. I was there, the audience was there, and Bach about to appear.


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