The Alaska Center for the Performing Arts is nearing its fundraising goal to buy a new piano for the facility. As of Wednesday, $157,000 had been donated or pledged toward the purchase of a 9-foot-long Steinway Model D concert grand piano that will cost $160,000.
For 28 years, the center had use of a Yamaha grand piano through a loan program. But that arrangement ended last year, said Anne Garrett, director of development and marketing for the center. The new piano "will be the first 9-foot grand that we've ever owned," she said.
"We had the option to purchase the Yamaha, but everyone said that if we were going to buy one it should absolutely be a Steinway," she said.
One of those advocating for a piano from that manufacturer was Ira Perman, executive director of the Atwood Foundation, and previous head of the Anchorage Concert Association.
"When artists, particularly from the outside, come to town, they often specify that they want to play on a Steinway," he said. "Many are Steinway artists, with contracts that oblige them to use Steinways whenever possible. So the thinking was, well, let's get the piano that the artists want to use."
In addition, he noted, the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra has a Steinway grand stored at the center and used for its concerts that could be brought out for two-piano programs. "When you get duo pianists, you really want to have matching pianos if you can," he said.
The money has been raised through a quiet campaign that invited music lovers to "buy" a key at various donation levels. A single big donor could probably have been found, Garrett said, but "we wanted to make this a community effort."
A keyboard at the "88 Keys" campaign website, myalaskacenter.com/support/88keys.php, features an interactive image of a standard piano keyboard, which does indeed have 88 keys. Click on a key to hear the note and find out who funded it. The Atwood Foundation, for instance, bought the high C at the far right end of the keyboard. The students of Sutherland Piano Studios held a recital to purchase the F and F-sharp keys directly above middle C.
The center's administration had hoped to purchase the new piano locally, but Steinway headquarters told them there are no dealers in Alaska at this time. The Steinway website shows the closest dealer in America to be in Bellingham, Washington. So on Oct. 11, center President Nancy Harbour, Anchorage pianist Timothy Smith and a small posse of donors will fly to New York to tour the Steinway factory and pick the new piano.
The company will have five Model Ds selected, Garrett said. Smith will explore what they sound like in a large space by trying them out in Steinway's 2,000-seat "Selection Room." The chosen instrument will be flown to Anchorage in early December and undergo a monthlong breaking-in process. It will have its public debut at a concert on Jan. 6 in the Discovery Theatre featuring Van Cliburn medalist Joyce Yang. Yang was heard in the Grieg Piano Concerto with the Anchorage Symphony last year.
The center will keep a log of who plays the instrument, when and for how long, which is something of a tradition among the owners of the bigger Steinways.
Once the money for the purchase is raised, the campaign will continue with the goal of drumming up another $40,000 for ongoing costs including maintenance, secured storage and climate control. Anything above that will go toward educational programs likely to involve the piano, Garrett said.
$160,000 may seem high, but it's not excessive in the current market for top-end instruments. Several Anchorage churches have organs that cost more than $100,000, as does the Yamaha Disklavier model used in the International Piano-e-Competition held at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 2014.
Made in America, Steinways are widely considered the finest pianos in the world and the ones best suited for big concert venues. They take a year to make and involve hundreds of craftsmen creating and assembling the 12,000 parts that make up each piano.
Nonetheless, center officials thought long and hard before committing to the purchase.
"We were sensitive to how people might feel about us spending so much money at a time when the economy is as soft as it is," Garrett said. "But the arts give a lot of life to this community."
As part of the 88 Keys campaign the center will present a screening of the PBS documentary "Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037" at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 18, in the Sydney Laurence Theatre. The film follows the construction of one Steinway piano from forest to auditorium.