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Recording on a SLEEPER Dream Piano


On a whim, I had decided to make an hour long trip to Visalia about 50 miles south of Fresno to sniff out the stock over at the “Piano Gallery.” (This was before it went out of business)

A medium size establishment in an upscale shopping mall, it was owned by “Ginnadiy Merkerin,” a Russian immigrant in this thirties who’d left his position as a dealer associate at “Fresno Piano” to start his own business.

The “Petrof” grands and uprights, his bread and butter lines at this new store, had been sleepers in a marketplace that heavily promoted the Asian staples, “Yamaha” and “Kawai,” and the “Nordiska” 7 foot grand, a hot entry from Mainland China had obtained sterling reviews in Larry Fine’s, hot-selling, Piano Book: Buying and Owning a New or Used Piano. The more elite pianos such as Steinway were sold at dealerships that had established relationships with the Astoria, Queens Factory. The positive ties forged between the owner of Fresno Piano and Steinway, New York, for example, had led to the successful factory purchase of the William Saroyan Theater’s dream Steinway concert grand piano that was meticulously maintained and housed in a specially designed, climate controlled room. Its acquisition and follow-up care reflected an increased support for the arts by a circle of Fresno donors who represented the city’s hard rock business community.

Still the Fresno recording environment had remained unfriendly to serious performing musicians who wanted to program the Classical music repertoire and make cd albums. There was no studio that housed a real acoustic piano.

The day I sauntered into Visalia’s Piano Gallery, I encountered row upon row of tight fitting Petrof uprights and grands. Prancing down narrow aisles, testing piano after piano, I couldn’t get excited about any of them because none could be singled out for tonal beauty or individual personality.

In the distance, at the back of the store, sitting atop a wooden riser, I noticed an imposing grand piano that conspicuously bore the name “Nordiska” on its side, and since I had spotted Fine’s review of this exact model in his most recent “supplement,” I was drawn to it out of curiosity.

Fine had written that the “Nordiska 7 foot grand model had an especially good sound and touch, the best yet Chinese-made piano.”

Nordiska’s distributor, “Geneva International,” Illinois, provided an overview of the instrument’s antecedents in its glossy brochure that I snatched from a table beside the imposing grand. One particular paragraph jumped out at me.

“In 1988, when Europe was in the midst of a deep recession the Swedish Nordiska manufacturer ceased operations. The Dongbei Piano Company located in China, was looking to produce a superior Chinese piano and proceeded to acquire the scale designs, machinery and virtually everything else from the Nordiska Company.”

As I read further, I realized the bond that had been forged between the Chinese and Swedish piano manufacturers just might have produced an out of the ordinary instrument but the true test of quality would be revealed in the playing.

Sitting before me was a notably European sounding piano of high quality. As I ran my fingers over its keys, the instrument shimmered in all octaves and provided a broad range of dynamics. I could feel an instant connection to the soundboard, as my fingers drew out an unlimited reservoir of resonance. Yet despite this piano’s tonal beauty and impeccable regulation from note to note, it was relatively unknown to the public. Like the Kawai, it lacked the high profile, aggressive marketing that was associated with its chief competitor, “Yamaha.”

While the older Yamaha grands in the “C” series had an appealing brightness, most, in my experience, would inevitably turn stringy over time. Where Steinways seemed to ripen over years with continued playing, Yamahas would for the most part, not age gracefully. This bore out with a brand new Yamaha grand piano purchased by one of my adult students at Fresno Piano who paid nearly $20,000 for a handsome looking, medium size instrument that had a dry, lackluster sound. And while it had passed through a full period of initiation, being played for at least two years, it hadn’t matured into a piano with a “voice” and personality. Yet, in an alcove nearby, a trade-in Acrosonic (Baldwin made console) from the late 60’s played circles around it.

The Nordiska, sitting upon a throne in the Visalia Piano Gallery, elevated it above the more mundane pianos on the floor. The instrument had made such an indelible impression through its playing performance, that I entertained the idea of asking to borrow it for a Fresno recording session. Having no spare funds to underwrite its rental and transport, I hoped that Ginnadiy would donate it to me, and maybe, in the process, we could give the piano a good dose of needed exposure.

The Name Nordiska and its association

I thought back on my piano finding travels and how I had become aware that a form of commercial racism permeated the sales universe. The Nordiska name belying its Chinese manufacturer had come across as a “European” piano, but no one seemed to know much about its workmanship. Those who had knowledge of its Continental heritage, would still point to its underlying Chinese identity and readily dismiss it as just one of those new pianos pumped out of the Mainland. When Yamahas first arrived, anything “made in Japan” was similarly frowned upon, until perceptions changed in the course of years.

****

Ginnadiy was surprisingly receptive to my request to obtain the Nordiska to make a CD.
“You just name the day, and I’ll have it delivered to you, free of charge,” he said.

I was shocked by his generous offer because only months before I had approached the authorized Steinway dealer in Fresno, and had asked to loan the house piano, a 7 foot concert grand, only to be told that I had to foot the complete bill of $1,500, rental and shipment included. For a starving musician like me whose rent and utilities easily exceeded this sum, my dream of recording on a worthy piano had evaporated.

***

A shiny, ebony Nordiska grand arrived at the “Peter Wolf Sound Studio” within weeks of my having found it among a sea of average pianos. It was the rose draped centerpiece of a classy, towering space in downtown Fresno that had an awesome, climate controlled environment. While Nashville, Tennessee was the hub of Country Western music recording, the Wolf Studio seemed like a Sony Classical equivalent with its imposing, vaulted ceilings and advanced technology. The engineering board, vast and complex, made in Holland had been snatched up by Peter during one of his escapades around the state. He had placed a pair of bronzed antique Western statues on its rim and had a few surreal paintings sprinkled around his quarters.

An eccentric addition to Fresno, the 37 year old sound engineer, recommended to me by a music teacher friend, poured his heart and soul into each and every one of his recording projects. Clearly as a gesture of generosity, he had offered to donate his studio time and personal services on behalf of the current Nordiska project because he hoped that he might get to keep the towering piano. Uncannily, he had encountered the same Nordiska 7 foot model O grand at the NAMM show (National Association of Music Merchants) in Anaheim weeks earlier, and admitted to me that he had fantasies of miking it up for a recording session. Such a dream would soon be fulfilled.

I had programmed album selections easily recognized by music lovers and the general public. “Fur Elise” and the “Moonlight Sonata” stood out as works that would appeal to listeners who might enjoy a classics sampler that encompassed diverse periods of musical composition. This disk would not have lengthy sonata movements. The longest composition would be “Chopin’s Nocturne in B flat minor,” a doleful “night piece,” with a passionately turbulent mid section, followed by a quiet return to the opening theme. This was a work I had lived with since age 13 when I had first embarked upon my advanced piano studies with “Lillian Freundlich” in New York City. A teacher with extraordinary teaching and performance gifts, she sealed had my love affair with the piano.
***

The elegant Nordiska grand dominated the main room of the Wolf Sound Studio and was undergoing a last minute check by one of Ginnadiy’s tuners.

Suddenly, I noticed a problem with the piano. The soft pedal audibly squeaked when depressed and had to be promptly fixed or I wouldn’t be able to make the triple ppps (softs) in the Chopin Nocturne or in the muted sections of the Beethoven “Moonlight” Sonata. Because I took great pride in creating a broad palette of colors in my performances, I would definitely need the sotto voce or mute pedal for “La Fille Aux Cheveux de Lin,” a dreamy, French Impressionist work by Claude Debussy.

The knotty situation evoked memories of my 1922 Sohmer upright that had intermittent squeaks in its sustain pedal that drove me up the walls. The only comparably unpleasant sound was the shriek of chalk on a blackboard!

“Myron Buchbaum,” the relentless, nerdy tuner of my Sohmer piano that sat in a small room in the company of my very musical parakeet whose chirps or cackles affirmed or denounced my piano playing, made more than one emergency call to our Marble Hill projects apartment to address the problem. Not once but several times, the pudgy fellow would fail to find the squeak as he was uncomfortably scrunched into a narrow space beneath the piano with his ear to the floor. Every time I heard the pedal squeak, Buchbaum didn’t. Then when he finally acknowledged it, he dispensed part of a can of oil into the pedal joints to correct the problem. No sooner had he fixed everything and headed out the door, that I heard the squeak again and raced down the hallway to catch him before he disappeared into the elevator. Each time I grabbed Buchbaum in the nick of time, begging him once and for all to annihilate the squeak, it turned out to be a prolonged, frustrating, and fruitless pursuit. In the last analysis, I had to painfully accept a sporadically squeaky sustain pedal.

***
The Visalia Gallery piano tuner, likewise, couldn’t get a grip on the Nordiska pedal problem. He had tried everything—dis-assembling the action and tweaking the dampers. He even inserted WD-40 directly into the pedal area but to no avail. In the meantime, I was getting a bit testy about the whole thing, wondering why Ginaddiy had failed to properly detail the piano before it was sent over to the recording studio. If York were here he’d certainly know how to fix it, but today he was off in Tranquility, moth proofing a piano.

I took a few deep breaths to calm myself down, and decided that the squeaks were not worth a further drain of my energies. I’d make do, and play the Nordiska without using the soft pedal. If I increased my overall sound projection, I’d be able to scale down my dynamic levels when needed.

Time was short. Peter couldn’t donate more than a complete afternoon and evening to the project and the next day following the session, the piano had to be returned to Visalia though there was always a chance it could remain a bit longer. Perhaps by some miracle, the musical treasure would become a permanent addition to Wolf Sound notching up Fresno’s recording environment and making it a hub for fine classical recording artists far and wide. A nice fantasy.

Peter had proposed a plan for the recording session that was a bit unorthodox.
Upon his recommendation, he would retire to the lounge, turn on the power, and leave me to my own devices in my area in front of the sound engineer’s glass window.

It worked. I was a free spirit left alone to play a heaven sent piano with no distracting hand signals, or prompts from the engineer. I inhabited a fancy free space that was filled with a divine sonority emanating from a grand piano that would be immortalized on disk with Wolf Sound’s imprint!

The session ended by midnight when I had no more adrenalin to pump out, yet I experienced an overwhelming, though pleasurable exhaustion.

Peter had meanwhile returned to his station behind the glass, winked at me, and began to shut down power in the space. The lights out, we parted, and I headed into the darkness to my dilapidated Dodge Caravan van bursting with delight that I had recorded on a dream piano. It would remain one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life!