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Sunday, March 24, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Classical Music

Incredible Instruments: Some find Bsendorfer pianos grand indeed

Seattle Times music critic

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It all started back in 1980, when William Gerberding (then University of Washington president) decided to donate about $60,000 from the president's budget for a new piano for Meany Theater.

Gerberding, as he will remind you, didn't pick out the piano — a stunning Bösendorfer Imperial Grand that glistened on the Meany stage like a Maserati in a showroom window, and sounded a lot better. But the piano, which arrived in 1981, was the impetus for the President's Piano Series, which has been bringing some of the world's greatest pianists to Meany for more than two decades of appreciative audiences.

The only problem is that a lot of those artists don't play the "president's piano"; the majority of today's top pianists are official Steinway artists, and they tend to gravitate toward the Steinway when given a choice (as they always are, at Meany).

Over the years, however, that Bösendorfer has proved a bit of a temperamental star, sounding harsh and jarring in the hands of pianists who don't understand how to play it, and marvelously refined in the hands of those who do — such as the much-admired Garrick Ohlsson and the international star András Schiff, who played it a week and a half ago because the Bösendorfer he takes on tour was in a truck accident.

The Meany instrument takes a certain amount of loving care, too; UW head piano technician Steve Brady put new hammers and strings on it last year, restoring it to a level of impressive excellence.

So what's a Bösendorfer, anyway? Created in the Vienna factory (founded in 1828), Bösendorfer pianos come in many sizes and styles, including some "fine furniture" models that would be right at home in the Palace of Versailles.

The Bösendorfer Imperial Grand, often considered the ne plus ultra of pianos, is 9 feet, 6 inches long, and carries a price tag of about $175,000. It has 97 keys and a bass that extends all the way down to a low C (normal 88-key pianos end at a low A). You won't find a lot of repertoire written for those extra notes, but they sound wonderful — although they can throw the unwary pianist.

Pianist and UW School of Music director Robin McCabe, who has recorded four of her CDs on a Bösendorfer, observes: "One's 'southern sight-lines,' so to speak, can be seriously skewed because of the extra footage in the bass. Ending a piece such as Debussy's 'L'Isle Joyeuse,' for example, with its nose-dive final gesture to the low A of the piano, becomes a bit more problematic when that A is not the lowest note on the piano!"

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