There’s a new sound at the College of Charleston thanks to a passionate music patron. When Charleston physician, Dr. Samuel Dwayne Thomas, passed away in 2018, he stipulated a percentage of his estate be earmarked to acquire a concert grand Steinway for the College’s International Piano Series.

“Dr. Thomas’ generous gift has given us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” says Paul Sánchez, director of piano studies and the International Piano Series. “A Steinway concert grand piano has 12,000 parts — most of which are handmade. Not only are we receiving this phenomenal gift, we are able to choose the right grand piano for the College.”

Sánchez and Edward Hart, professor and chair of the Department of Music, set their sights upon a Model D concert grand Hamburg Steinway. Why a Hamburg Steinway and not a New York Steinway? It all comes down to the cleaner, crisper sound of the Hamburg Steinway.

The two Steinways use much of the same processes to create their pianos, but the components differ. For one thing, they use different hardwoods, which leads to a basic, fundamental sound difference. They also use different spruces for the soundboards, which causes a subtle variance in the ring, bloom and sustain of the piano. Hamburg Steinways use Renner parts, considered the best wooden piano parts in the world, while New York Steinways use in-house parts. These parts result in the distinct voicing of a piano. The two Steinways’ different bass strings lead to tonal gradations.

While its components give the Hamburg Steinway its definitive sound, each instrument has its own personality.

“That’s why it’s so important to select the right one,” explains Sánchez. “As a handcrafted product, each piano has its own nuanced colors.”

Above: Paul Sánchez performs “Granada: Serentata” from “Suite Española, Op. 47,” by Isaac Albéniz, on the College’s new Hamburg Steinway Model D concert grand piano.

Because of the subjective sound and feel of a piano, Hart and Sánchez made plans to travel to STEINWAY & SONS Hamburg in April 2020 to select the perfect grand piano for the College.

“The opportunity to ‘taste test’ some of the most exclusive pianos in the world was beyond our wildest dreams,” says Hart. “Every player’s tastes and needs are different, and we would be able to choose what suits us at a personal level.”

But their plans ground to a halt in March with the escalation of the COVID-19 pandemic. Given the uncertainty of when they would be able to travel overseas, they considered other options to acquire the piano.

“To ask someone to pick out a piano is like asking a chef to select a knife for another chef,” says Hart. “It’s such a personal choice. Do you want stiff or light action? Do you want warm bass notes or intense ones?”

Fortunately, Sánchez knew the perfect person to go on their behalf — a colleague of his from the New Piano Collective, Bobby Mitchell, who lives in Freiburg, Germany.

“Bobby and I have worked together over the years, and he has an amazing ear,” says Sánchez. “He asked me what my preferences were for the new piano. It was difficult to articulate what I was looking for, but I wanted a piano with a huge range of colors and a lighter action. Bobby and I have similar tastes, and I trusted him to choose a gorgeous instrument.”

It was an opportunity Mitchell couldn’t refuse.

“I felt like what a car fanatic would feel like when visiting the Rolls Royce factory when Paul asked me to travel to Hamburg to select the Steinway for the College of Charleston,” says the world-renowned pianist. “Pianos and piano music have been my passion as well as my job for pretty much my entire life, so the opportunity to go visit the world’s premiere piano manufacturer was like a kind of pilgrimage for me.”

a piano tuner tunes the piano

John, a piano tuner gets the new Steinway piano ready to play in the Sottile Theatre. (Photos by Heather Moran)

Pilgrimage is an apt word given that Mitchell journeyed 11 hours by train to reach Hamburg, but he knew the trip was worth it the moment he saw the STEINWAY & SONS’s large brick piano factory nestled in one of Hamburg’s industrial neighborhoods.

“I was received very cordially and attentively, like a celebrity,” says Mitchell.

One salesman stayed with Mitchell throughout his visit, providing details about the company while paying rapt attention to his comments about the pianos and his experience with Steinway.

“I spent four hours in a large showroom with natural light and had access to six different newly built Steinways from which to choose,” says Mitchell. “Even though all six pianos were excellent, the one was clearly ‘the one.’ They all responded very well to all sorts of different ranges of dynamics, approaches to touch and made various beautiful sonorities, but one piano was by far the easiest to navigate — it was the easiest to make sound excellent.”

Once Mitchell selected the Model D concert grand, the piano traveled to the Steinway factory in Astoria, New York, before making its way to the College’s Sottile Theatre, home to the International Piano Series.

When the piano arrived at the Sottile Theatre, Sánchez and Hart did a test run, and the instrument proved gorgeous to both the eye and ear. Sánchez called Mitchell and told him, “You picked a good one.”

“We are so grateful that Dr. Thomas saw the value and potential of our International Piano Series,” says Hart. “We are going to get back on the horse the moment we can so that we’ll have world-class pianists from around the globe play for the community and hold master classes for our students.”

Ironically, Mitchell was scheduled to open for the 2020 International Piano Series, which has been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

When the series resumes, Mitchell will be ready: “I had a great time playing on the concert grand in Hamburg and look forward to performing a recital on the instrument in Charleston soon.”