In May, Daniel Epstein was set to perform Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2. There was just one problem: The standard 7-foot grand at the Broadway Presbyterian Church in Morningside Heights wasn’t grand enough.
So the Upper West Sider did what any keyboardist of his stature would do: He called Steinway & Sons, picked out a 9-foot concert grand from its Astoria factory, and waited for the company to deliver the instrument to the church — which three movers had to take apart and get through a narrow doorway.
“It’s not something I do a lot,” says Epstein, 72. “But you can’t play Brahms on just any piano.”
If you’ve ever seen Emanuel Ax at Carnegie Hall, Jason Moran at Lincoln Center or indie-folk star Regina Spektor at Brooklyn Steel, chances are the piano they played was prepped, polished and provided by Steinway itself. The NYC-based company has an entire fleet of coordinators, movers and technicians devoted to getting grade-A grands to their elite customers, no matter where they are.
“We once got a Steinway to Antarctica,” says Vivian Chiu, director of Steinway’s artist-services division, which handles these requests. “I think with enough lead time, we could do anything.”
The Steinway Artists program is nearly as old as Steinway itself, dating back to the late 1800s. Early members include Rachmaninoff, Duke Ellington and Cole Porter. Now, its roster boasts some 2,000 musicians, ranging from virtuosos such as Lang Lang to pop stars like Billy Joel, who can demand a piano anywhere, anytime, anyhow.
The company keeps about 150 grands for these artists in New York City — with an additional couple hundred scattered at dealerships around the world. Some musicians want a specific piano, but most of the time, Chiu’s team will pick a handful, based on the taste and repertoire of the artist, who then chooses one. Then Steinway will have the instrument polished, tuned and transported. What’s more, one of the company’s eight or so technicians will be assigned to tune and “voice” the piano, or adjust its tone or quality of sound, once it arrives at the venue — and again before showtime.
The company waives the rental fee, but someone — either the artist, the venue or a sponsor — must pick up the transport costs, which start at $1,000 for a straightforward, local move. But the amount can quickly escalate into the hundreds of thousands when you’re trying to airlift a piano to, say, the top of Brazil’s Corcovado mountain. That, by the way, was the only time Steinway wasn’t able to deliver.
Bill Hennessy, who’s moved pianos for Steinway for more than 20 years, recalls the time Hélène Grimaud requested one for a concert at the Park Avenue Armory, which she wanted to flood with 122,000 gallons of water as she played aquatic-inspired works.
‘People are crazy — they’re like, ‘I will do whatever it takes to get that piano!’’
“You can’t get a piano wet, because that would destroy it,” Hennessy, owner of Keyboard Express, tells The Post.
“Even the humidity of having it in such a wet environment could affect it.” So every afternoon, for its nearly two-week run, a team of workers installed a series of boards and planks to get the piano out and drain the hall before wheeling it safely back in place.
Melody Brown, who with her four siblings makes up the piano quintet the 5 Browns, remembers the time Steinway delivered — to a cave in Midway, Utah, where the group shot a video.
“It was super warm and humid and you had to cross 90 feet of water to get to it,” she says. “But they didn’t hesitate at all.”
Chiu says she tells pianists that it’s first come, first served. “And then the bribes come,” she says. “People are crazy — they’re like, ‘I will do whatever it takes to get that piano!’ ”
But she and others involved with the program say it’s all worth it in the end. Whether it’s Ludovico Einaudi playing a piano in Antarctica, surrounded by glaciers, or jazz artist Arturo O’Farrill performing for NYC students, “these artists go above and beyond for us,” she says. “We just want to do the same for them.”