Wednesday, September 11, 2013


Sanders Theater at Harvard University reopened in September of 1996 with a concert of piano music, after renovations and the purchase of a nine-foot Steinway concert grand. The finale was Rossini's overture to Semiramide as arranged by Carl Czerny for eight pianos, thirty-two hands. The nineteenth century liked multiple-piano concerts and has left us these arrangements of orchestral works for massed pianos. In America particularly, a visiting conductor would propose such a concert, and the local citizenry would round up as many as twenty or thirty pianos and haul them in from the surrounding countryside on wagons or whatever was available.

A few weeks before the Sanders concert, Laurie told me what was planned and described what his role was to be: to select the pianos to be used and tune them all to each other. Many times in his career he had tuned two pianos to be played together; I don't think he had ever done more than two. He seemed to have no doubts about his ability to bring it off, and I'm sure no one else did.

I asked him how the promoters of nineteenth century piano orchestras, with visiting conductors and not much lead time, tuned all those pianos -- especially since pianos don't respond well to being moved by nonprofessionals and bumped around the countryside. Probably not very well, we decided.

Laurie came home every day with a progress report as the pianos were assembled on the stage and tuned. It took him a total of thirteen hours to tune them all together, and seven hours to keep them in tune until the concert.

At some point, I remarked, "We're going to this concert, right?"

"Oh, it's for honchos at Harvard," he replied, "It isn't for the general public."

"I can't believe," I said, "that Lew couldn't get you a couple of tickets if you asked him." Lew was head of the piano shop and Laurie's boss.

Laurie said, Grumble.

"Laurie," I said, "I've got to hear this. Please get tickets for us."

So he did. When I met him at the Oxford Street entrance to Sanders Theater, he had that look of impending doom that I'd seen once or twice before when he expected some ax to fall. "Now," he said, "I get to find out whether I walk out of Sanders Theater, or crawl."

The nine-foot Steinway D, of course, was in perfect tune -- Laurie's pianos always were -- and performed splendidly for its part of the program. Then sixteen young pianists, all students at Harvard, took their places for the Czerny/Rossini piece. To our satisfaction, the mistress of ceremonies hailed the piano tuner by name as the real hero of this piece.

The sound of eight pianos played together is metallic and percussive but also, due to tiny discrepancies in timing, suggestive of sustained strings. Laurie observed that the tuning wasn't perfect, as many things in this world aren't, but I can't believe anyone heard the flaws but him. He got to walk out of Sanders Theater with pride in a job well done. The recording of the piece that Harvard gave him is one of my prized possessions.