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All keyed up: 25 students vie for an 80-year-old Steinway
Generosity and serendipity both play a part in the first Berkeley Piano Competition

| 02 April 2008

When Bay Area piano teacher Leone Squires McGowan drew up her will in 1992, she left an unusual bequest. A Berkeley alumna (Class of '43), McGowan charged her alma mater with finding a home for her six-foot model L Steinway piano, stipulating that it go to "a worthy student of piano at the University of California, Berkeley."


Davitt Moroney saw the gift of the Steinway as an opportunity "to raise consciousness in the Berkeley community - on-campus and off-campus - about the dire needs of our pianists and our piano program." (Peg Skorpinski photo)
 

McGowan passed away in 2006, and music professor Davitt Moroney saw the piano as a "wonderful pedagogical opportunity to help our students study even harder." He devised the first Berkeley Piano Competition as a way to determine a deserving recipient for the instrument and honor her wishes.

"The university was not given the piano, and so it is not the university that is giving it away," Moroney explains. "I organized the competition because it is important for the University of California to be seen to have presided over the giving away of such an exceptional gift in a manner that is completely transparent."

Moroney also viewed the competition as a way to draw attention to a serious problem in his department: Like other forms of individual music instruction, piano lessons are woefully underfunded. Of the more than 60 music majors who say piano is their first instrument, the department's budget covers lessons for only 15 students. The department also is unable to offer instrumental music lessons to students whose minor is music or to non-music majors seeking lessons.

"This is a truly desperate situation for a music department at a great university," says Moroney. He recently set up a special fund in the music department, an endowment dedicated to improving this situation. Several donations have already come in.

McGowan's Steinway has been "a fantastic" incentive for piano students in the music department, notes Moroney. As a result, he hopes to institutionalize the competition, and plans to hold the next one in April 2010.

This year's inaugural competition was open to all current students at Berkeley (and those who graduated during the last 24 months) willing to tackle and prepare an ambitious repertoire of works by Brahms, Bach, Beethoven or Schubert, and Chopin.

It comes as little surprise that 13 of the 25 competitors are music majors. Of that group, nine are double majors in disciplines as varied as English, Italian studies, molecular and cell biology, physics, and psychology. The rest come from equally wide-ranging areas of study, including architecture, business, chemistry, electrical engineering and computer sciences, mathematics, and Slavic languages and literature.

Moroney expects the competitors' academic diversity to "produce a series of exceptionally intelligent and thoughtful performances, the product of highly original young minds."

The competition's preliminary round began Wednesday, April 2, and will resume Saturday, April 5, at 3 p.m. Five finalists will compete for McGowan's Steinway on Sunday, April 6, at 7:30 p.m. Admission is free, and the public is welcome and encouraged to support the students. The winner will perform on Cal Day, Saturday, April 12, at 1:30. (All performances take place in Hertz Hall.) A private donor has contributed $500 to be awarded to the first runner-up.

Timing and TLC

The student who wins McGowan's Steinway will receive a real treasure. The piano, which dates from 1928, "is a very fine piano," says Moroney, and should be worth around $50,000 once it's restored.

The instrument will have come a long way since it arrived at the campus's Morrison Hall. McGowan, who had been ill, had not played the piano for more than a decade. And it had gone without major maintenance for 15 years.

"Its mechanism had become sluggish and heavy due to verdigris" - a greenish-blue patina that forms on copper, brass, or bronze surfaces - "that had settled into all the moving mechanical parts of the keyboard," Moroney says. "Also, the black outer case of the piano had suffered over 70 years of wear and tear in her home, and needed refinishing and repolishing."

Moroney was in a bind. He knew restoring such an instrument could be quite expensive. And since the piano doesn't belong to the university, any donations he raised for its restoration would not be tax-deductible. So the music professor turned to John Callahan, of Callahan Piano Services in Alameda, both to return the piano to its former glory and for help with fundraising ideas.

His timing couldn't have been better. As it happened, Callahan was beginning work with Oscar-winning filmmaker John Korty on a documentary meant to highlight the craftspeople at Callahan's studio. What they needed was a once-grand piano in need of some serious TLC, and McGowan's bequest fit the bill.

While the Berkeley piano won't have a starring role in the film, it will be a key prop, and the competition will be woven into the narrative. The five finalists will be filmed, and the Steinway's winner will likely get some extra time on screen. The main thrust of the film, however, is Callahan Piano's restoration process.

Moroney, for one, eagerly anticipates the transformation. "If you have a 70-year-old Cadillac that's been sitting in the garage for 15 years, it's going to need significant restoration work" to make it run properly, he says. "A musical instrument is just the same. I can't wait to hear this Steinway start purring again."

For details of the Berkeley Piano Competition, visit music.berkeley.edu/pianocompetition.html. Davitt Moroney invites anyone with a piano they wish to donate for the next competition to contact him at dmoroney@berkeley.edu.