It lacked an instrument that could dazzle the ears with a range of dynamics, could support a choral rehearsal, and could accompany the wide variety of instruments to perform solos. While the beautiful, new organ certainly would be effective in these respects, one of the most common, and yet most distinct and classical, instruments was vacant.
That hole in the musical fabric of Christ Chapel was filled doubly by the majestic 9 foot Steinway D piano and its smaller sister, a 7 foot Steinway B, both the generous gifts of donors of the college.
In May of 2019, college trustee Ron Nolan and his wife, Phyllis, reached out to Hillsdale college with an offer. They wanted to donate a piano capable of filling Christ Chapel, an instrument suitable for student, faculty, and guest recitals. A noble instrument for a noble space. They also wanted their friend Stanislav Ioudenitch, who is a professor of piano at Oberlin Conservatory of Music and an international concert pianist, to help select the piano, and to perform at Hillsdale when the piano is dedicated.
In January of 2020, James Holleman, chair of the music department, and Brad Blackham, director of keyboard studies, met the Nolans and Ioudenitch in New York for a two-day trip to search for the right piano.
“That’s a totally unique experience and most likely a once-in-a-lifetime thing for myself and probably most pianists. You just don’t get many opportunities to go to the Steinway factory to choose an instrument,” Blackham said.
The Steinway brand was chosen since it is the international standard of concert pianos, and also because Ioudenitch insisted on a Steinway — a proposition the college accepted full-heartedly.
“We did go back and forth on the possibility of a German Steinway versus a New York Steinway. At one point the idea was to fly to Hamburg, Germany, and pick up an instrument. It was just logistically impossible.”
The German instruments are known for their Austrian technique and approach to sound, somewhat similar to the Bösendorfer piano currently housed in Conrad Hall. The American versions tend to have a bold and upfront sound, Holleman said.
The final day of the trip included a tour of the Steinway factory, located in Astoria, New York. The tour not only included the chance to pick out the perfect instrument, but also a visit to the storied Steinway vault, an invitation-only, secured safe which contains seven of Steinway’s most notable instruments.
The seven pianos were each placed on their own stages and showered with colored lights designed to best show off the particular varnishes on the pianos.
“One of them had images from Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” imagery based on the piece and the artwork depicted in the piece. There are also a couple of instruments with veneers that wouldn’t be used typically, like Santos Rosewood and Macassar Ebony, for example,” Blackham said. “It’s very much like pulling back the curtain to find the wizard, à la the Wizard of Oz.”
While the visit to the Steinway vault was a unique experience, the most important part of the tour was the choice of pianos. The seven 9 foot Steinway D’s were arranged in a climate-controlled showroom.
“Mr. Blackham just went down the row and played all seven different nine-footers. He picked his two favorites, then Stanislav went in and played, and he picked his two favorites,” Holleman said. “It just so happened they picked the same two.”
“It was like driving nine different Ferraris,” Blackham said.
The two pianists narrowed down their choice, focusing on action and sound production, finally selecting the piano that now lives behind the sanctuary in Christ Chapel.
When the piano arrived in February of 2020, it did so in time for senior Anne Ziegler’s March 5 concert, during which she performed the first movement of the Saint-Saens piano concerto no.2 in G minor.
“It is no easy task to present such a beautiful and awe-inspiring instrument, and I wanted to do it justice. When I performed, though, I was overjoyed to have such an experience. Steinways are, and always will be, close to my heart,” Ziegler said.
The smaller, seven-foot Steinway model B was also the result of a gracious donation to the college.
“The process of getting the 7‑foot grand was much less pomp and circumstance than the 9 foot, mostly because it was donated to us and it happened in the summer, though we were just as happy to learn that we were getting such a lovely piano,” Blackham said.
The beautiful, wood-stained piano originally resided in the home of Marjorie Stroud in Leelanau Michigan before she donated it for use in the chapel in the summer of 2019. While the smaller piano does not command the chapel in the same spectacular way that its more magnificent sister does, it fulfills an important role.
“Stroud wanted it to go into the chapel, and she wanted it to play sacred music,” Holleman said.
Thus, the wood-stained piano now supports the choir in its rehearsals which have taken place in Christ Chapel since the COVID-19 pandemic. It is used in student events and has been featured in orchestra concerts as well.
The vacant spot originally felt in Christ Chapel has been more than filled with instruments that point to the purpose of the chapel: to lift minds and hearts to God.
“When I hear the warm tone of the Steinway fill up the white and marbled space of the chapel hall, I am overflowing with joy. I can’t help but smile and thank God for the beautiful gift of music that orients my soul towards him,” said Ziegler.