Upcoming performances celebrate the Santa Cruz arrival of two new Steinway grand pianos
By Scott MacClelland
Franz Liszt, the dominant pianist of 19th-century Europe, and a powerful composer in his own right, was the first to demonstrate that the piano was the equal of the orchestra. This was, in part, a reflection of the technological refinements made to the instrument after it began to come into its own during the era of Beethoven. But it is also a tribute to a performer who envisioned the instrument's true capabilities--and destiny--just as Niccolo Paganini had done for the violin.
Today, it is safe to say that a community's classical music traditions, anywhere in the world, can be summed up by the caliber of concert pianos it boasts. Ernest "Bud" Kretschmer has long been this county's principal piano advocate, spearheading fundraising committees and making generous personal contributions to assure that the communities of Santa Cruz, Aptos and Watsonville could put onstage a fine Steinway D 9-foot grand.
Involved in choosing a piano in 1974 for the mutual use of Cabrillo College, the symphony and Cabrillo Festival was pianist and teacher John Orlando. After the death of Carole Holdaway, a piano student who was better known as a business leader, arts patron and advocate for the homeless, Orlando established the Carole Holdaway piano fund to ultimately acquire a better Steinway for the college.
Orlando was in attendance at the first Santa Cruz County Symphony program of this season to hear Anton Nel as soloist in Beethoven's Emperor Concerto. During intermission, Orlando found himself in conversation with a local arts patron who has made charitable contributions through his otherwise anonymous Westcliff Foundation. The two talked pianos, and suddenly "Westcliff" told Orlando that he would buy the symphony a better instrument. A few days later, a check in the amount of $80,000 arrived. The gift came with something else--a significant contribution to the Holdaway fund.
Immediately, Orlando made arrangements to visit Steinway House in New York. His piano-playing entourage would include Michael Tierra, Gary Gangnes and Emily Wong, the latter long-associated with the Cabrillo Festival.
Orlando was amazed to find that Westcliff, having set all this in motion, had not even mentioned the gift to the symphony people. Learning about it first from Orlando, they were surprised and thrilled. As executive director Virginia Wright explained, the symphony had just undertaken a review and rededication of its resources to remake the Civic Auditorium into "the finest concert venue in the region." She cited the city of Santa Cruz's own push toward reviving its commitments to the arts. Meanwhile, Orlando polled pianists who are familiar with the Steinway that has been shared by the major presenters during the last three decades, and reported, "All the pianists said that the piano was OK but a new Steinway would be wonderful." Wright admits that a new piano was not at the top of the symphony's priorities, but that there could hardly be a better icon for the improvements her board has envisioned.
Ultimately, Orlando and company selected two new Steinway Ds, one each for the symphony and the college. The Carole Holdaway instrument will see its local debut on Nov. 20 at Watsonville's Mello Center, when Van Cliburn medalist Antonio Pompa-Baldi plays a recital to include the Bach/Busoni Chaconne, Chopin's Sonata op. 35 and Grieg.
Then, at 7pm, Jessica Williams, Santa Cruz County Artist of the Year, will play jazz standards, her own compositions and audience requests. Between the two, Michael Tierra will offer a Powerpoint presentation showing how Steinway pianos are made. (Orlando promises a discounted price for the Williams concert when tickets for both are purchased, plus a two-for-one dinner discount that day for patrons who buy the package.)
The symphony plans to show off its new instrument on Jan. 21 and 22 when Aileen Chanco solos in the Saint-Saëns Concerto no. 2.
Antonio Pompa-Baldi plays Sunday, Nov. 20, at 2pm, and Jessica Williams plays at 7pm, at the Mello Center, 250 E. Beach. St., Watsonville. Tickets $20-$50. (831.656.9507)
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