Tali Mahanor, raised in rural Sherman, Connecticut, came to Steinway & Sons in 1978 after meeting one of the Steinway family as a teenager, and stayed with the company for six years, learning, as she puts it, “the magical art” of tuning and voicing pianos. Today, the title most often given to one who undertakes the care and feeding of pianos is “technician”. Tali dislikes the term. “I am a piano-tuner”, she avows. “Tuning is the primary art above all else in this work. Tuning is the beautiful act of setting things from awry to right; bring musical order from cacophony and chaos.” Technicians, Tali says, fix computers or TV sets. “Technician’ is a soulless word, and I don’t wish to be known as a soulless being!” Tali left Steinway in 1984 to practice her art on her own and pursue a career as a free-lance piano tuner. She graciously agreed to tell Bernard Meillat about her experiences with Eugene Istomin.
Meeting Eugene and Marta Istomin
I first met Eugene and Marta in 1985 through a mutual friend, Grayson Nichols, who was a Steinway salesman and a Steinway piano lover. Grayson owned two Steinway & Sons concert grand model “D” pianos and had recently moved back to his native Washington D.C. from New York. He insisted on having me continue caring for his two “children”. On one of my visits, he brought me over to the Istomin’s splendid home on Connecticut Avenue where Eugene had been suffering with piano problems. After spending the day with their Steinway “B”, Eugene tried it and then exclaimed: “Well now, how are we going to have you come down from now on to care for my pianos?”
Thus began two wonderful friendships. Soon, Eugene would be stopping over at my place at the Beaux Arts on East 44th Street in New York City to rehearse and practice on my two concert grand pianos I had at the time. They were the retired Steinway & Sons “CD-226”, which I named “Del”, and my new model “D” concert grand piano, serial #481868, named “Natasha”, which I purchased in June 1983 while working at Steinway & Sons.
The first time he asked me to care for a piano at one of his concerts came as an emergency request while he was in Sarasota, Florida in 1987. The piano there was in a terrible state. A frantic call came in which found me canceling all other appointments and on a jet to that concert venue. This resulted in more such events and soon I was traveling to many concerts that he had planned. In time, a nationwide tour commenced in 1988 using a specially-designed truck that G.M.C. had outfitted and given him as a gift. This enabled us to take our own pianos with us.
Istomin’s curiosity about the instrument
True to his curiosity of just about everything in life, Eugene had a keen interest in the instruments themselves, and appreciated them as individuals. Thus, he became attached to the various Steinway concert grand pianos we used, and they became important and treasured figures in our lives; just about as much as people did. He did not truly comprehend the mechanical nature of the piano so well. Nevertheless, initiatives such as lubricating the key bushings, twisting the bass strings and lacquering hammers were procedures which held delighted and amused fascination for him.
I had been lubricating key bushings for years so that the keyboard felt smooth and even. Without this, the keys possessed much drag. When we play, we do not merely move the keys up and down. There is a lot of sideways movement which places strain on the bushings and causes them to wear. By lubricating the bushing felt, the bushings and key pins do not drag with excessive friction. This friction causes the touch to feel heavy and inconsistent.
The relationship between the pianist and the piano tuner
I can say that no other pianist ever took such an interest in me and my ideas, despite my having gone down some rocky and downright wrong and treacherous roads. This is best illustrated during our time with perhaps the most gorgeous-sounding of all the concert grands we used, Steinway & Sons “CD-86”, a 1983 vintage piano I discovered for Eugene in the Steinway Concert Department in the late 1980’s. He had asked me to keep a lookout for a potentially beautiful piano that would then be reserved exclusively for him while remaining the property of the Steinway Concert Department. Once garnered, it was agreed that Steinway would send me “CD-86”, to my apartment, and we would commence with a series of modifications which would hopefully make the instrument most ideal for Eugene. And so “CD-86” arrived at my home – and we sent the keyboard to a talented elderly man in Wells, Maine, Mr. Russell Grethe, who then re-covered the natural keys with a beautiful, thick, one-piece ivory. The plastic sharps were removed, and genuine vintage ebony ones were installed. I found a set of vintage early 1940’s Weichert felt Steinway hammers.
We replaced the New York-made action parts, which had some components made of the last of the Teflon, with the newly-introduced Renner action parts from Germany which had long been in use on the Hamburg-made Steinway Pianos. This work, combined with the inherent beauty of the rest of the instrument, found “CD-86” possessing the most intoxicatingly beautiful tone. It was an instrument not about power, though it had ample reserves of that ingredient, but one of refined, singing elegance.
Renner action parts
Trials and tribulations of Steinway “CD-86”
Finally, it was time for the transformed “CD-86” to go out into the world again and this was to occur at the Grammy Awards program in honor of Isaac Stern here in New York City. Eugene was in the middle of a European concert tour and would zoom in on the Concorde to make his appearance and be on the next Concorde back to France. And so, the day came when the movers showed up at 307 East 44th Street to take “CD-86” to the hall. Because of terrible traffic, they had to roll the piano up East 44th Street to Second Avenue and place the piano on the tail lift of the moving truck there. Unfortunately, that crew of men was reckless and ogling young women; not paying attention to the sacred task at hand as the piano was being raised to the floor level of the truck. Suddenly, the dolly kicked out and the 1,000-pound “CD-86” came crashing down to the street with a horrifying dead thud, simultaneously striking two of the movers who then started bleeding and had to be taken to the hospital. During the concert piano’s descent, it hit and demolished the front end of the car that was behind the truck. After they righted what I imagined to be the wrapped ruins of “CD-86”, I immediately called Richard Probst, then the director of the concert department, and informed him of the accident. He pleaded with me not to say anything to Eugene until the piano arrived at Steinway Hall the next day. I was present when the piano arrived and expected to witness a broken lyre as they unwrapped the moving quilts on the loading dock. However, I did not see the ruins I expected and proceeded to run my hands over the keys. To my complete shock, “CD-86” not only played but was still in tune! The pedal trapwork system was damaged and the top lid sustained dents. These injuries were instantly repaired and “CD-86” was brought over to the Grammy Awards. I did not tell Eugene of this episode until over 10 years later.
“CD-86” would go on to simultaneously enchant and torture Eugene. This was a most trying time for me, trying to learn and understand what I might do to solve these issues. The sound was magical, and the orchestra musicians constantly remarked on its exquisite tone. But the Renner action turned out to be too quick and racy which made Eugene feel like he was on dangerous skates and that he would lose control with the added factor of his adrenaline rush which always occurred when he performed.
Removing the lead weights in front of the keys only made matters worse for while technically, the action became heavier, it seemed even lighter as the element of mass and inertia was removed. It was a few years later that we would learn that the placement of the knuckles on the early Renner hammer shanks was not quite the same as the New York parts. By this time, Eugene had made the heart-wrenching decision to not use “CD-86” anymore, yet he could not face letting it go out of our lives. So, he arranged for his friend Tom Monaghan to purchase the piano, thereby keeping it near to him. A few years later, we were able to acquire Renner hammer shanks that were of the correct dimension which made “CD-86″‘s action have more body and substance, but by this time “CD-383” had joined the tour and “CD-86” was happily ensconced in its wonderful home in Michigan. A number of subsequent visits with “CD-86” found Eugene very happy with the piano, the problems of the runaway action greatly resolved.
The misfortunes of Steinway “CD-383”
Three of the most dramatic events which occurred for us involved the piano that remained with us the longest, Steinway & Sons, “CD-383”. These events would certainly bear testimony to the marvelous qualities of endurance instilled into the pianos of this instrument’s maker, Steinway & Sons.
In the first episode, “CD-383” was brought to Carnegie Hall for a concerto. Somehow, for the setting up of the piano on stage there were eight men to assist – more than ample help. Unfortunately, there was a miscommunication between the men on each side as the piano was taken off the dolly. When one side picked up and the other did not, disaster was imminent, and the piano went crashing violently upside down onto the stage. It sounded as if a bomb had been detonated. Everyone stood silently still, in complete disbelief and shock. I observed the fine mist of dust from the traumatized floor around the seemingly “shot-dead” piano, rising up towards the ceiling. I gazed upon the shocking sight and thought, “This is the piano that is supposed to be emanating beautiful music in just over two hours!” After what seemed to be an eternal moment, a voice came over the walkie-talkie radios from the office downstairs asking: “What in hell was that?!” Like the incident with “CD-86”, I was in numb silence. All the keys were grotesquely out of place adding to the drama of the vision before me, and, once again I thought, particularly with an upside-down fall, that we had just witnessed the ruin of an exquisite Steinway. The men righted the piano onto its side, then attached the legs and lyre and set it right-side up. I was able to set the keys back into the frame and it played – but this time, unlike the accident involving “CD-86”, “CD-383” was woefully out of tune from the fall. It was a miracle that the plate had not broken. I had to rush to do my best to make things musical. Orchestra members started to arrive, making a lot of noise as they warmed up. After informing Marta, we were all debating as to whether to inform Eugene. In the end, we decided to not say anything and let him simply try the piano. We could always switch over to the house piano which was the very beloved “CD-385”. The sheer information of this misfortune would have sent Eugene over the edge and if he was happy with “CD-383”, there seemed no point in potentially upsetting him. During the concert, one of the unisons went badly out of tune, but he was in an especially good and humorous mood that evening. Every time the sour note came up in the concerto he took great delight in playing the note with extra emphasis while gazing out into the audience toward me – smiling gleefully, knowing that he was slowly, but surely, “killing” me. We did inform Eugene the next day of the accident and indeed he was very upset.
Soon afterward, in early 1993, “CD-383” would return Carnegie Hall for a special benefit event involving multiple artists. One of the rubber casters had become damaged in the course of the many moves of that tour and I was especially eager to have it changed at one of the stopovers at Steinway Hall. Somehow, this did not happen. At this particular concert, because of the various artists, it was necessary to move “CD-383” on and off the center stage. Just before Tatiana Troyanos was to make her appearance, the stagehands came on to move “CD-383” into place. As they were nearing the proper position, the left front caster (at the bass key side) suddenly disintegrated, sending ball-bearings flying off in all directions. Simultaneously, the piano teetered on its pedal lyre system, listing, while gasps of horror were emitted from the audience. Quickly, two of the men grabbed “CD-383” while another ran off to find a scrap piece of sturdy lumber to prop the crippled-looking instrument up. As this was happening, others were scrambling about the stage on their knees trying to locate all the runaway ball-bearings before the great diva made her appearance. The thought of her slipping on these tiny metallic balls was, in itself, too much to bear.
In the third event, “CD-383” had been packed up in the 1940’s-vintage traveling crate specifically made for traveling model “D” concert grand pianos and sent to Paris by way of Air France Cargo, arriving at Charles de Gaulle Airport. When removed from the 747-freighter jet, the piano, in its crate, was left out on the tarmac for some time in the pouring rain. Unfortunately, the old crate had many a hole in it and when “CD-383” was unpacked and set up in Lille, France, water came gushing out the bottom of the piano. Everyone was horrified, of course, and I was alerted to this occurrence once I arrived at the hall. Yet, after wiping it all dry, there was not one sign of damage and the piano played perfectly. We took this instrument around France. Musicians and music lovers there were fascinated to hear what a New York Steinway sounded like, as the Hamburg Steinways were the ones that predominated Europe. “CD-383” made two trips to France culminating with a performance at Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. The third and final trip to Europe for “CD-383” saw it in Budapest and Kronberg.
Eugene Istomin as a person
Though he could be undeniably difficult, Eugene was perhaps the most faithful person I have ever known and even back then, I appreciated that this sort of relationship would be one I would likely never know again with other pianists, or for that matter, anyone! Mostly, the concept of traveling with one’s concert grand pianos and piano tuner was nearly 100 years out of date. Eugene would often feel and express to me great remorse for his temper tantrums that took place with various people who were involved with the local concerts we gave. He could be explosively intolerant of thoughtless ignorance, yet there were times when I felt for sure his great wrath was about to be unleashed when, instead, he was filled with kind patience.
One of my favorite stories involved a rather flippant and cocky stage manager who had been working with lighting. Lighting and the problems of shadows on the keyboard were an enormous issue for Eugene. In time, this person came up and smugly asked if everything was acceptable and satisfactory. It was blatantly obvious that the man anticipated the usual “yes” to both issues of acceptability and satisfaction, those typically being thought of as one and the same. Instead, Eugene answered that the lighting was acceptable – but not satisfactory. Eugene’s response was so unexpected that the lighting man was truly bewildered, so much so, that I momentarily felt sorry for that stage manager. This was a classic example of how Eugene did not speak or receive information thoughtlessly, such as that which is most often communicated and heard – in an autopilot sort of setting.
There is the memory of the time I canceled my American Express Gold Card as things had gotten out of hand. Eugene was furious with me for this. He held great pride and importance in having cards of this sort, such as his Platinum American Express, among the other prestigious ones he possessed. In Eugene’s way of thinking, one who was a respectable person always had such cards and to dispense with them was to dispense with a certain respectability.
There was also an amusing memory of the time Eugene decided to drive after an absence of several years “behind the wheel”. We finally had the car arranged through the rental agency at the Orlando, Florida Airport and had taken our seats. For the next fifteen minutes or so, we had to both figure out where the key went and how the pedals and shifter were situated. Mirrors were painstakingly adjusted, and all the various buttons were carefully examined as if seeing a car for the very first time. Knowing Eugene’s lack of comprehension for nearly all things mechanical, I was nervous that an accident was imminent – this perhaps due to the prospect of possibly inching our way across the Bee Line Expressway to the eastern Floridian coast. Instead, once we were on this highway, he started feeling more confident as we were enjoying our usual chats. Suddenly, I was cognizant that we were passing everyone, and though it did not seem that we were speeding, we were, in fact, traveling over 90 miles per hour. I pointed this out and we immediately slowed down, but then the speed would creep up again. He was having a grand time and I was quietly a wreck. Many years later, Marta recounted that he always enjoyed high speed.
Eugene had a tongue-in-cheek fascination for the culture of the south. Often, we would carry on for days in Southern accents. He made distinctions between the upper and lower classes’ Southern dialects. He particularly enjoyed the local Southern cuisine in the towns we traversed, and took impish delight in the things that were dangerously spicy.
Mozart. Concerto No. 21 in C major K. 467, first movement. Eugene Istomin. Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Gerard Schwarz. This recording was made on October 10, 1995 by Reference Recordings (Keith O. Johnson, engineer) and allows one to hear the gorgeous sound of the Steinway “CD-383” which was voiced and tuned by Tali Mahanor.