When Memphis Symphony Orchestra conductor David Loebel journeyed to New York last year, he had a distinct mission: buy the best grand piano the symphony could afford. He struck gold at the Steinway factory, located in the shadow of LaGuardia International Airport in Queens.
"Picking it out was an amazing experience," Loebel says today. "I walked into a room where there were seven nine-footers lined up in a row, and I just went from one to the other.
"My fear was that there wouldn't be anything on that particular day and that I'd have to come back again, but we very quickly narrowed it down to two," he recalls.
Loebel explains that he was looking for an instrument with a particularly beautiful sound. He also needed a piano that had the power to project all the way to the balcony. "We wanted something that was worthy of the music we were going to play on it -- be it Mozart or Rachmaninoff -- and something worthy of the orchestra, the building, and the greater Memphis community," he says. "Our old piano had simply worn out, and we hadn't owned one for a few years. Instead, we rented an instrument on an as-needed basis.
"Being in the Steinway showroom was worse than being in a candy store, because there's no candy that costs $100,000," Loebel notes with a rueful laugh. "But our piano was there. It was just like going out on a first date. I thought, Here's the basis of a great relationship."
Within a month, Loebel's choice, funded by a grant from the Plough Foundation, was docking in Memphis. A crew from Amro Music (Loebel credits them as "incredibly strong, incredibly intelligent, and incredibly gentle people") unloaded the nine-foot Steinway from its gargantuan crate, reattaching its legs and positioning it on a large dolly that glides on and offstage at the Cannon Center, where the symphony performs most of its concerts.
That was in January. Since then, the piano has silently rested in a climate-controlled storage box, which conjures up images of a beautiful ballgown that hangs in the closet, patiently awaiting the season's first cotillion.
"We did sneak it out for one concert by soloist Angela Chang, but we didn't tell anyone," Loebel divulges guiltily. "It sounded too good to keep under wrap."
This weekend, Polish-born pianist Emanuel Ax will formally inaugurate the Memphis Symphony Orchestra's Steinway with a fitting debut that includes selections from Mozart, Berlioz, and Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade.
"We knew that the first person to officially play the piano should be someone of real stature and someone who is considered nationwide and worldwide as being in the top rank, which doesn't make for a very long list," Loebel says.
"Manny was just the person we wanted to inaugurate this instrument," he adds. "He's a great pianist and a delightful person."
Loebel and Ax first crossed paths more than 35 years ago in Cleveland, Ohio. In those days, Ax, who immigrated to the United States via Winnipeg, Canada, was an emerging star on the competitive classical-piano circuit. He'd studied at the Juilliard School, toured South Africa, and become an American citizen.
But after failing to wow judges at such prestigious events as the Queen Elizabeth Competition and the Chopin Competition, Ax refocused his attention on concerts, then emerged as the grand-prize winner in the Rubinstein Piano Master Competition. By the end of the 1970s, he was an established concert pianist with an RCA recording contract under his belt.
Today, Ax ably tackles classics by Beethoven and Haydn as well as modern compositions by John Adams and Christopher Rouse. A contemporary of such big-name performers as the late violinist Isaac Stern and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Ax is regarded as one of the best pianists alive.
"If you want longevity, you have to have that special something," Loebel confirms. "Manny's got it."
For Saturday's concert, which marks the premiere of this season's First Tennessee Masterworks Series, the Memphis Symphony Orchestra will offer valet parking at the Cannon Center, as well as bus service from Laurelwood Shopping Center. Cost runs $11 per car and $7 per person, respectively. Forty-five minutes before performance time, Loebel will present a free "Concert Spotlight" lecture in the Cannon Center's lobby.
Advance tickets are $12 to $76 for Saturday's performance and $40 for Sunday's and are available by calling the Memphis Symphony Orchestra box office at 454-6774 or via MemphisSymphony.org. Hurricane Katrina victims with ID showing residency in an affected area are invited to report to the box office for free tickets, available 15 minutes prior to the concert.
The Memphis Symphony Orchestra presents ''Steinway and Ax''
With conductor David Loebel and pianist Emanuel Ax
Saturday, September 17th, 8 p.m. at the Cannon Center (255 N. Main Street in downtown Memphis)
Sunday, September 18, 2:30 p.m. at the Germantown Performing Arts Centre (1801 Exeter Road, Germantown)