Berkeley California, classissima,, James Barron, Journal of a Piano Teacher from New York to California, New York Times, piano, Pianomania!, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Smith Kirsten, Stefan Kupfer, Steinway 1098, Steinway piano, Steinway studio upright, word press, word, wordpress,, you tube, you tube video, you, yout tube,

Piano Mania! and the Bezerkeley arrival of Steinway 1098!

Pianomania! is an apt title for a documentary about Stefan Knupfer, Steinway piano technician, who gallops upstairs and downstairs in a premier “Vienna concert haus,” trying to meet the needs of performing pianists, recording artists, et al. They demand the kind of perfection in voicing, tuning, aesthetics that’s often beyond human capability. One classic example is a relationship, easily characterized as neurotic that plays out with Knupfer and Pierre-Laurent Aimard. The pianist is gearing up to record Bach’s Art of the Fugue and requires “voicing” for Clavichord, Harpsichord and Organ by individual sections. Try transforming an acoustic piano into a 17th century artifact using more imagination than hands-on intervention, though in truth, Stefan has something up his sleeve that no other tech can dream up. (He’s a problem-solving dynamo)

The assortment of pianos Knupfer deals with is mind-boggling. Steinway grands are numbered like thoroughbreds at the Kentucky Derby.

The numbering, so conspicuously referenced in James Barron’s The Making of a Steinway Concert Grand(book and documentary) also applies to my own assortment of pianos.

Picture this, before I escaped from Fresno to Berkeley, California–

A living room hodge podge of acoustics: (and one digital)

The aerial view:

Fast forward to the latest piano shuffle in Bezerkeley, a sized-down space, that forced two acoustics out the door–one on loan to a piano teacher in Fresno.

The other, a Baldwin Grand, 1929, is housed up in the El Cerrito Hills! (my second E. Bay piano studio) Skyped piano lessons are launched at my Berkeley pad.

piano room where I teach El Cerrito

But Hallelujia! Yesterday, Steinway 1098, a bright-sounding studio upright made it’s maiden voyage to my apartment, displacing Yamaha Arius 141 that was shuttled off to the kitchen! The latter incensed Jakov Corsa, Facebook friend, who just purchased Arius 161, and considers it having altar status. (Kitchen?)

Well, it was better than relocating an electronic to the bathroom, if you consider the economy-sized layout of my digs. (By the way, a hamper joins the blended family, with an ironing board neatly folded into a custom-made cabinet–It’s ready for deployment) Talk about an all-purpose kitchen!

Yamaha Arius 141 in kitchen

Almost center-stage, but still UP-staged by my Steinway Grand, M, 1917, NO. 185152, is 1098, delivered expertly and with panache by Greg McCrea, AA Pianos, Oakland. (Check Yelp and you’ll need no further help)

McCrea piano movers

AA piano movers McCrea



Sitting pretty, all dolled up, and ready for action!

Steinway dim lighting

How’s this for lighting and color framing!

pretty Steinway with blanket

A few camera pans around the room

2 Steinway pianos

Mac back and Steinway pianos

The back story. I purchased Steinway 1098 in Fresno about 7 years ago. A friend spotted an ad for a Steinway upright in the FURNITURE section of the Fresno Bee classifieds. Naturally, I raced to see/play it, and my curiosity was rewarded by years of playing pleasure. The seller, a native Italian, planned relocation to the homeland and desperately needed to find a good home for her sweetheart. I guess it was love at first sight and sound! A match made in heaven!

New York Times, old disposable pianos, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Smith Kirsten, Sohmer upright

A NY Times article on landfills of discarded pianos is thought-provoking;ref=arts&_r=4&adxnnlx=1343746997-So2LFy3bwlbB06xhRqMQ%2FQ

I read reams of comments attached to this article, and most who’d posted were emotionally devastated by a graphic slide show of grand piano dismemberment, pulverization and landfill-dumping. It amounted to an unmarked grave, or even worse, since the dust pile would be untraceable over years.

A principle at Faust-Harrison, a high-profile piano dealer and restorer, said “‘We’re in a disposable economy right now….The whole mentality is replace rather than repair.’”

The fact is that very few pianos are worth overhauling in the first place. Most know that Steinways, Bosendorfers, and old Baldwins from the golden age of piano-building, have a shot at reclaiming their voice even if neglected. (damage accrues not so much from lack of tuning, but by placing an instrument in harm’s way–near the radiator, and then freezing it out in the winter.. soundboards swell and compress.. cracks emerge.. hammer assemblies become time-worn if parts are not replaced in a natural life rhythm)

Then, too, re-builders are charging an arm and a leg to do an overhaul, and many aren’t amply qualified to replace hammers and then properly voice them. You’ll find a lot of braggadocio unsupported by skills needed to back up big EGOs. More often than not, a re-builder will polish the case, vacuum out dust beneath the strings with his fancy apparatus, or use a cloth attached to a rod– saying the piano’s been “refurbished.” I’ve seen such half–baked work too many times.

And yes, we live in an age of the vanishing piano technician–one who was seriously trained and committed to excellence–not the correspondence course enrolee, who barely tunes with or without a machine.

In this day and age, the tuner is not necessarily a technician. I know one who’s REGISTERED (took a fancy exam and passed it) but admits he “can’t repair.” So what do you do with a fine instrument, like a Steinway when it NEEDS work to keep it running smoothly? (Like a car, perhaps? Imagine the plight of a Lexus if mechanics were unable to do tune-ups, change timing belts, etc. and make periodic adjustments and repairs) A piano has thousands of intricate parts that need attention just like an automobile.

Eventually, poor or no piano maintenance leads to illness and eventual death. And so often, the piano owner has little control over his instrument’s destiny. (especially if he’s settled in a small community, or in the boonies)

It’s therefore, not a disposable economy that’s the problem. Rather it’s the age of the dilettanti that fosters a slipping-in and slipping-out of repair, with the least work invested.

A pertinent flashback to my beloved Sohmer upright, the first real piano I laid my hands on, is relevant. A concert pianist, Lucy Brown owned the instrument, and sold it to my mother for a whopping $450! Big money in the 60s.

Once it arrived and was placed in my bedroom in the Marble Hill Projects (Bronx) I relished playing a piano whose every note sounded with rich resonance.

When it was next transported to my apartment on Central Park West, I’d play and sing excerpts of the Messiah to my first-born. How she loved it even as my vintage Steinway M 1917 grand competed for attention. (It had undergone two overhauls in the Big Apple.. one that was pricey and worthless)

Upon my emigration to CA, the Sohmer was returned to my mother for “safe”-keeping. Did I say “safe?” I had no clay Buddha or religious artifact to protect it. Regardless, it made not a tad of difference given extreme humidity shifts in the living room.

The last I heard, the Sohmer had died. In fact, I heard it “live” when I played it in October 2011. It was shadow or skeleton of itself–pathetically ill-maintained and ready for the scrap heap.

Here’s an updated piano sample from my 2014 NYC touchdown:

In a last-ditch effort to save it, I had my mom contact a fine restorer in Westchester to give an assessment.  According to the consultant, not even intensive care was an option. The piano was a soul-less container–without a breath of life remaining.

Yet my piano still sits in mother’s living room as a monument to itself with a repository of fine memories.

Finally, looking beyond the landfill as the destiny of many pianos, one has to consider that to thrive, an instrument needs life support. Somewhere, somehow it’s lacking, and this may be the root of the problem.


Anthony Tommasini, Chamber Orchestra of Europe, classissima,, Fresno Bee, J.S. Bach, J.S. Bach Partita in E Major, Mozart, Mozart Piano concerto in C K. 467, Mozart piano concerto no. 21 K. 467, Murray Perahia, Murray Perahia masterclass, Nareh Arghamanyan, New York City High School of Performing Arts, New York Times, New York Times arts editor, pianist, pianists, piano, piano masterclasses, piano playing and phrasing, pianoworld,, playing piano, Schumann Caraval, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Kirsten blog, Shirley Smith Kirsten, shirley smith kirsten blog, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, word press,, you tube, you tube video

Murray Perahia, pianist, is in a league of his own! (Videos)

Okay, so I borrowed a snatch from a movie title about a woman’s baseball team keeping the diamond percolating with energy during World War II. And Geena Davis did a superb job as the lead, but in all honesty, Murray Perahia does one up on her at the piano. His playing field encompasses 88 keys in black and white combination, and never have I experienced anything better in the way he channels Mozart. Watch the You Tube video attached. (I’m wearing out my pointer finger on replays, but it’s worth every mouse poke.)

Murray is interviewed about the Mozart Concerto no. 21 in C Major, K. 467, by Sir Dennis Forman, and both have engaging voices in a riveting dialog.

What jumps out at me, like a bulls-eye line drive between second and third base, is what Perahia says about rubato in lyrical movements–particularly the second one of Mozart 21.

Forman launches the discussion by asking “How much rubato should there be in a Mozart piano concerto?” (Rubato means flexible time)

Murray replies like he’s known the answer since birth.

“It’s a difficult question because rubato is just a natural rhythm. It’s the way one sings the pulse. It’s almost necessary for all kinds of lyrical music. The question is how much?” (Please, piano students, pay attention to this. Music cannot be metronomic. One must phrase like a singer.)

You can be sure when listening to Perahia play, as sampled in interspersed segments of rehearsals with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe that he means what he says. He translates his personal sense of rubato in all his music-making. (Bach, Scarlatti, Mozart, Chopin, Schumann, Brahms to name more than a few composers he has communicated in an incomparably spiritual way)

And in this spirit, I’ll recount my memories of Murray when he was a classmate at the New York City High School of Performing Arts in the mid 60s.

He had no doubt a gene for playing the piano. It was so inborn, you could feel it like the placenta shed in a birthing room.

Murray, when asked to realize the Continuo for a Corelli Concerto Grosso would do it so lusciously that all heads turned in his direction, except for the conductor who was no rival to Perahia. When Murray, then a conducting student ascended the podium one day for his exam, we in the orchestra were catapulted into a region of music-making never experienced before.

In a word, we didn’t know what hit us. It was Haydn’s Symphony no. 101 and I was in the violin section, right up front within reach of Perahia’s hand. I don’t think he used a baton. I recall that Murray was red in the face as he drew every bit of blood and passion out of us–the same pathos as is revealed in rehearsal clips interspersing the Forman interview.

When Murray left the podium back in high school, we were sadly back to the usual hum drum baton-waving of our resident music director. Ugh. I won’t mention his name. May he R.I.P.

But many students couldn’t wait to stay after school for a snatch of Murray’s frequent chamber music rehearsals. I remember the Beethoven Triple Concerto practice as well as the Mendelssohn D minor Piano Trio.

On one occasion Murray was asked to sight read the Chopin E minor Piano concerto during an orchestra rehearsal in place of an absent student soloist. Needless to say, his performance was pulsating with passion, where it had otherwise been delivered in a mechanical way.

Not to forget Perahia’s easy reading of a symphonic score as he was perched at the piano. Imagine one pianist gulping all those instruments, and rendering a composite of sections in a masterful way.

As observers, we were awestruck!


Here’s a Perahia anecdote just for good fun.

One day, our high school conductor asked Murray to pick up a viola (where on earth did he get one?) and play in the orchestra.

Oh my, what a sight to behold. Murray looked extremely ill-at-ease with the over-sized violin, I mean viola, under his chin. And as quickly as he managed to hold it in place with his left hand on the scroll, the alarm went off for a fire drill and thankfully the instrument was neatly tucked back into its case. I think Perahia was relieved–perhaps saved by the bells!


Flash forward to Fresno, 1981. Perahia came for his one and only concert to the boonies here, and it was memorable for us, but probably a big pain for him. The unkind Fresno Bee reviewer at the time, went off on a tangent about Murray’s posture at the piano and devoted little space to the substance of his performance.

What else could I expect?

The Bee has since relieved all music critics of their duties, probably due to budget trimming. Instead, the newspaper assigns one arts editor to interview those booked for Keyboard Concerts or the Fresno Philharmonic.

You might say that I’ve appointed myself as a volunteer music commentator through my occasional Letters to Editor which have been published about performances that filled my ears with pleasure.

The last pianist I qvelled about was Nareh Arghamanyan who played magnificently, with Schumann’s Carnaval as her tour de force featured selection.

But back in the 80s, I made sure to challenge the reviewer who wasted time ruminating about Perahia’s comportment at the piano. (Nothing to speak about compared to Lang Lang). My Letter got into the Bee without a hitch and the rest is history.

So after Murray performed on our now defunct Community Concerts series, which also featured Bulgarian acrobats and puppets from Transylvania, he was scheduled to give a Master Class, and guess who popped up at the recital hall at Fresno State University.

Yours truly, 3 weeks short of delivering baby number 3, and intending to play Beethoven’s “Tempest” Sonata, movement 1 for Murray. You might say it was a “staged” class reunion, though Perahia was a year ahead of me at Performing Arts.

I can’t precisely recall everything Murray said about the composition, but I do remember meeting him the night before at a dinner party held in his honor.

As an invited guest, I ambled over to Perahia, and showed him, in advance, the Master Class list of students and pieces.

He gazed down at the roster, quickly noticing the composer Wilbur Straight.

Thinking quickly on my feet, I asked Murray what he might offer in the way of advice about playing this music.

Wryly, he said, “I’ll tell him to play it straight.”

In a New York Times review written about Murray’s 2009 recital in Avery Fisher Hall, Anthony Tommasini took Perahia to task for not programming contemporary music. Would this same arts editor have listed STRAIGHT among neglected modern-day composers?

From what I heard of STRAIGHT’s music, I would draw a straight line right through his name and substitute J.S. Bach.

Speaking of, listen to the Bach’s E Minor Partita performed by Perahia in Berlin, December 20011.

After sampling this display of consummate artistry, I’m convinced more than ever that the pianist is in a league of his own.


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