The Steinway – The Jewel in the PPO’s Crown

loading A rare sight of two Steinway pianos side-by-side! The red Steinway D piano is one of only two in existence. As part of its world tour in 2015, Beethoven's Seventh was performed on the Steinway during its visit to Penang.

THE STEINWAY IS Penang Philharmonic Orchestra’s (PPO) most prized purchase.

A serendipitous meeting with Karina Ridzuan, formerly the CEO of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO) at the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas, and which PPO Chairperson Datin Seri Irene Yeap (nee Png) describes as “pivotal”, led to 15 musicians visiting Penang – with a Yamaha grand piano in tow.

The group performed three concerts at the Homestead Mansion, once the residence of Penang’s most celebrated tycoon and philanthropist Yeap Chor Ee, as well as at the Suffolk House and the Town Hall, where a crane had to be used to lift the piano up to the building’s first floor.

The performances moved Irene deeply, and solidified her intent to acquire a grand piano for PPO. But due to budget constraints, PPO had to make do with a secondhand piano instead.

“I casually mentioned this to Professor Chan Tze Law from the National University of Singapore’s Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music. He was our principal guest conductor and was at the time assisting with PPO’s transition from when it was known as the Penang State Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, back in September 2008.”

On Chan’s invitation, Irene made a trip to Singapore to visit the so-called “piano graveyard”, where old pianos are exiled to. “I saw a beautiful piano there that had been salvaged from Singapore’s Victoria Hall, but the tone simply didn’t sound right when it was played by Albert Tiu, a colleague of Chan’s and an Associate Professor of Piano.” Tone and touch are very important when choosing a piano.

A crane carefully lowers the Steinway to the ground outside of The Star building along Lebuh Pitt.

Back home, and through her contact with the late Phua Sin Loke, the founder of Bentley Music, Irene was introduced to the brand Steinway & Sons. “Knowing that it would give PPO the added edge, Phua even generously offered a very special price for its purchase!”

While abroad in Europe for a holiday, Irene visited the Steinway & Sons factory in Germany to observe how a grand piano was made. She also recruited the help of Bonn-based Dato’ Seri Ooi Chean See, who is Malaysia’s first female orchestra conductor and MPO’s founding resident conductor, to personally test and select the right piano for PPO.

This is important since every Steinway piano has a unique character, and the timbre of an instrument cannot be measured, unlike the pitch in a piano’s tuning. A D-274 Grand Concert Piano was purchased; this was a tremendous value-add to the orchestra. “It is partly because of the Steinway that PPO has attracted reputable international soloists and conductors to our Island,” she says.

For five years, the Steinway was housed at The Star building on Lebuh Pitt, where it was kept air-conditioned 24/7, and with a dehumidifier installed. It has since been relocated closer to Dewan Sri Pinang.

Before this, moving the Steinway which weighs a whopping 600kg to the concert hall required an entourage of contractors, professional movers, Rela volunteers and a piano tuner to be mobilised at least three days in advance. A crane, truck and scaffolding needed to be rented as well.

The move was a six-hour process that started with the dismantling of the Steinway; it was much easier to transport the grand piano in parts (carefully wrapped!) rather than as a whole to Dewan Sri Pinang. For added protection, it has transit insurance. Each trip cost a staggering RM15,000! And PPO organised three to four performances annually, at least before Covid-19.

PPO’s concert hall is surfaced with specific platforms to reflect sound from the piano, and to prevent it being absorbed by the carpet. The Steinway, the “Rolls-Royce of pianos”, as Darren the piano tuner names it, goes out of tune every once in a while, as all pianos do. Changes in temperature and humidity don’t help; nor does occasional heavy or aggressive playing.

Darren usually tunes the Steinway to suit the artiste’s playing style, but its general tuning is set at 442 hz (442 beats per second), the standard pitch used internationally. This allows for other instruments to be tuned to the same pitch. “The Steinway has significantly raised PPO’s profile and for that, we are extremely grateful to Bentley Music for facilitating its purchase and supporting the realisation of PPO’s dream,” Irene says.  

Sarah Daniel Jacob is a social media ethnographer who loves coffee, Star Wars, floorball and tennis. But ultimately, her passion for writing and comedy is undeniable. She’s basically a grammar nazi who loves making people laugh.

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