U-Michigan unveils historic George Gershwin piano; dedication concert by students, faculty

September 23, 2014

George Gershwin at the piano that was recently donated to the University of Michigan. Image credit: Ira Gershwin ArchiveGeorge Gershwin at the piano that was recently donated to the University of Michigan. Image credit: Ira Gershwin ArchiveANN ARBOR—A fully restored 1933 Model A Steinway piano, owned and played by George Gershwin, will be unveiled by the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance at a free public concert Oct. 10.

The piano was donated to the school in 2013 by Marc Gershwin, George’s nephew, as a crowning gesture of partnership between the Gershwin families and U-M during the creation of the U-M Gershwin Initiative. Announced last year, the initiative provides U-M with complete access to the Gershwin archives to develop the George and Ira Gershwin Critical Edition—the only scholarly edition of the Gershwins’ music—as well as student performances, new courses and scholarly symposia of national reach and impact.

The concert will be held at 8:30 p.m. in Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor. Featuring a wide spectrum of music by George and Ira Gershwin, the multi-disciplinary concert, performed by students and faculty, will highlight the piano and reflect the many genres at which the Gershwins’ excelled—including classical music, jazz, opera, musical theatre and dance—all of which have renowned performance programs at SMTD. Included will be some of the Gershwins’ most celebrated works, such as “Three Preludes,” selections from “Porgy and Bess,” and the first performance of the critical edition draft of “Rhapsody in Blue,” featuring the original jazz orchestration from the work’s 1924 debut by the Paul Whiteman Band.

In addition, audience members will learn about the piano restoration from Robert Grijalva, director and assistant professor of piano technology, who oversaw the project, and Mark Clague, associate professor of musicology and editor-in-chief of the George and Ira Gershwin Critical Edition.

“As plans for the U-M Gershwin Initiative evolved, I realized that the University of Michigan would be the ideal home for my uncle’s Steinway,” Marc Gershwin said. “I wanted the instrument to be accessible to the students and faculty who would be preserving the legacy of George and Ira Gershwin’s music through this important initiative. I’m delighted that the piano will once again be in regular use, and am thrilled that it has been restored to performance condition.”

“The opportunity to perform on George Gershwin’s piano will be extraordinarily inspirational for our students and faculty,” said Christopher Kendall, dean of the School of Music, Theatre & Dance. “We are so grateful to Marc for his generosity and to the entire Gershwin family for their vision and commitment to ensuring that the music of their remarkable forbears will be preserved through the U-M Gershwin Initiative. This concert will be the first of many at SMTD to celebrate the Gershwins’ music with exciting, historically informed performances.”


A pre-concert talk beginning 7:30 p.m. will feature musicologists Ryan Banagale of Colorado College and Richard Crawford of U-M. Banagale is author of “Arranging Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue and the Creation of an American Icon” and the volume editor of the “Rhapsody in Blue” edition. Crawford is U-M professor emeritus of musicology and renowned Gershwin scholar who is currently completing a book titled “Summertime: George Gershwin’s Life in Music.”

To further explore the piano’s illustrious history and exacting restoration, a panel discussion will be held at 2:30 p.m. Oct. 10 at Hill Auditorium. Participants will include Grijalva, Banagale, and Clague, as well as Marc Gershwin and Mike Strunsky, nephew of Ira Gershwin. The event is free and open to the public.

After George’s untimely death in 1937, the U-M Gershwin piano resided in the New York City apartment of George’s mother Rose Gershwin. Following her death in 1948, Marc Gershwin’s parents, Arthur and Judy, occupied the apartment. Almost never played during this period, the piano did not move from the apartment until it left for Ann Arbor in the spring of 2013.

The U-M instrument is one of three Gershwin pianos in the United States; the others are housed in the U.S. Library of Congress in Washington D.C. and the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in New York. Steinway’s records indicate that George Gershwin took delivery of the piano in January 1934 while preparing for the tenth anniversary tour of “Rhapsody in Blue.” It is presumed that he used the instrument to produce portions of “Porgy and Bess,” first performed in 1935.

In partnership with Patrick DeBeliso, proprietor and master artisan/craftsman of PianoCrafters, Inc., of Plymouth, Mich., the Gershwin piano has undergone several hundred hours of careful rehabilitation to restore it to playable condition. The instrument received a new soundboard (handcrafted to duplicate the original, which suffered from both age-related deterioration and an irreparable crack), strings, keyboard, hammer and damper actions. The exterior of the piano was not refinished, though the case was cleaned to remove decades of dirt and grime.

“It will retain the look of a piano that was used by a great composer,” said Robert Grijalva. “A bit worn around the edges, but otherwise presentable.” Grijalva and DeBeliso documented the year-long restoration process, and the challenges faced by the technicians, in a blog on the U-M Gershwin Initiative website.

The piano’s original keyboard and action are being preserved for public viewing at the E.V. Moore Building, SMTD’s main facility for music studies. The building is undergoing an extensive renovation and expansion, scheduled for completion in fall 2015, and the piano’s permanent home will be in the new addition, the William K. and Delores S. Brehm Pavilion.

The Gershwin piano is the fourth historic piano to undergo a major renovation at U-M and reside on campus. It joins the Elizabeth Gould Hochmann Steinway Model B, on permanent loan to the University of Michigan Museum of Art, featuring a case design that is a copy of the first Steinway piano ever built; the Martha Cook Steinway Model A, built in 1913, in the Martha Cook Residence Hall; and, in the President’s residence, the Brescoll Steinway Model C, the oldest Steinway on campus, built in 1880 and formerly owned by the manager of Carnegie Hall, in New York City.


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