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A Battered Diamond Rediscovered

Concert for a Century–Old Piano

By Robin Pierson, Special to the Independent

 For years the piano sat quietly in a corner of Bridge Hall at the Neighborhood Congregational Church, more adornment than instrument.

     But last spring local composer and musician Steve Wood sat down before the old piano to practice before performing at a service that day in the sanctuary next door.

“I lifted the lid and saw the name Mason & Hamlin,” Wood recalled. “I was excited,” he said, realizing he stumbled on a “a battered diamond.” The 103-year-old piano, a Mason & Hamlin Model A Grand, is considered to be the world’s best grand piano under six feet. “It’s a really great American piano on a par with a Steinway,” Wood said.

     The timing of Wood’s discovery was fortuitous as church fundraising was underway to purchase a new piano. But since the veil of obscurity lifted, efforts have since been redirected to restoring the vintage Mason & Hamlin.

     On Saturday, Jan. 16, a concert to raise funds to renovate the piano to its original glory will be held at 8 p.m. at Bridge Hall at the Neighborhood Congregational Church.  Renowned musicians Steve and Beth Wood and famed guitarist Eric Henderson will perform. There is a suggested donation of $15.

     By spending the same amount of money it would cost to purchase a new piano, the 1907 Mason & Hamlin can be refurbished, resulting in a far more valuable and superior instrument.

“You can go and spend money on a new Yamaha and for $16,000 you can find a decent six-foot and it will definitely be a Honda,” Wood said. “And I drive a Honda and I love it but it’s just what it is…same all the time, dependable but not really great.”

     In contrast, the century old Mason & Hamlin “was built by master craftsmen,” Wood said. “The variation in tone is much deeper. It can go from a whisper to a shout, not utilizing volume, but tone. A hundred years from now, a 100-year-old Yamaha is not going to elicit the same feeling as coming across a 100-year-old Mason & Hamlin. And how often do you stumble across something that’s 100 years old that can be as good as new?” Wood asked. “Everyone over 40 likes that.”

     Just how the piano ended up at the church is a mystery. June Budd, along with her husband, Sonny, have attended the Neighborhood Congregational Church for 51 years. “It was given before we got there,” she said. “Who gave it and why it wasn’t recorded is beyond me. Anyone with knowledge is probably dead now,” she said, but Budd, along with many others, are hopeful that someone in the community might know with whom the piano spent its first 50 years.

     The Neighborhood Congregational Church’s piano committee has a team of experts poised to restore the centurion once the funds are raised. First it will go to Emil Grakov, an Austrian who has been restoring pianos for 24 years. After replacing more than 5,000 parts involved in the instrument’s action, “it will have a new life,” said Grakov, who has rebuilt at least 12 grand pianos similar to the Mason & Hamlin.

     Next it will be placed in the hands of piano technician and tuner, Bob Anderson.  “Structurally we get the piano back in good shape and then it’s my turn to bring it out,” said Anderson who has tuned pianos for the likes of Ray Charles, Paul McCartney, Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand and Stevie Wonder, before they went out on stage.

“It’s about the sound and touch and you listen to it, feel it,” Anderson said. “You can get an idea of what an instrument’s potential is and I think the piano still has good heart and good life in it.”

     Even without its pending facelift, the piano is very playable, which Wood will demonstrate at the concert.

     “I look forward to seeing Eric play anytime,” Wood said. “It will be fun blending our types of music. He’s heavily classically trained,” said Wood, who along with his wife, Beth, are members of the band Honk. “Eric does a lot of interpretations of pop in a classical style and I doubt if he’ll be able to keep us from playing with him.”

     Once the piano is restored, hopefully by Easter Sunday, the Neighborhood Congregational Church hopes the instrument will help make high quality music events a cornerstone of the church’s offerings to the community for at least another century to come.

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