The Steinways Spoleto

The Steinway piano is always sitting on stage without fanfare, but people rarely ask how the glossy black instrument got there.

Every year, one of the most anticipated shows in Spoleto Festival USA is the Chamber Music series at the Dock Street Theatre. The piano often plays the leading role at these concerts, and for this purpose Spoleto owns one Steinway. It is a Hamburg Steinway, named for the German city in which it was made. The piano turns 25 years old this year.

"The problem for pianists is they can rarely bring their own instruments with them," said Nigel Redden, general director of Spoleto. "They need to deal with whatever is there, and this piano happens to be really wonderful."

It's also crucial to have a piano that sounds just right in the performance space. Jean-Yves Thibaudet, a regular participant in the chamber music series during the early 80s, selected the Hamburg Steinway specifically for the small and intimate space of the Dock Street Theatre in 1989.

"If you put it into a large hall, it would not work because it wouldn't have a big enough sound," said Scott Higgins, the only piano technician tuning the festival's pianos.

Higgins, 53, has been the Spoleto piano technician since 1987. He tunes the Hamburg Steinway at 7 a.m., and occasionally again at 10:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., just before the daily 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. chamber music concerts.

But Higgins goes through this routine every day, not just during the festival.

"Everyone has their own way of describing how a piano sounds," Higgens said. "For me the Hamburg Steinway has a warm-belly, a pretty kind of tone."

With the Hamburg Steinway being suitable only for performances in the Dock Street Theatre, the festival needs additional Steinways for other spaces.

This is where the Concert and Artist (C/A) division of Steinway and Sons, based at Steinway Hall on West 57th St. in New York City, comes in.

The C/A, also know as The Steinway Basement, is where the company has several concert pianos available to rent to artists and festivals. These pianos are specially prepared and are known to be the among the best Steinway has to offer.

"We have been renting from The Steinway Basement for quite some time, so they know what kind of pianos we're looking for," Higgins said.

The festival always rents two Steinway D concert grand pianos. Each of these has its own concert number embedded on top to identify it. The grands this year are No. 319 and No. 379.

The two rented Steinways spend a lot more time traveling compared to the Spoleto-owned one. The instruments come from New York just before the festival begins, and experienced piano movers ensure they get to each destination safely once in Charleston.

"Timing is really important for Spoleto," said Chevelle Green, who has been a piano mover at the festival and Fox Music House Delivery Group for 20 years. "We need to have everything in place and make sure it's precise."

There have not been any piano drops during Green's time as a mover. There have been a few nicks here and there on concrete or against a wall but nothing major, he said.

But the two Steinways have problems adjusting to outdoor humidity. For a performance in the Cistern Yard, a piano will be moved there at 10 a.m. the day of a show so it can get acclimatized to being outdoors. The pianos are mostly made of wood and felt, which swell when it's humid and cause problems. If there is not a next-day repeat of the show, the instrument goes back to storage after the performance.

"Steinway pianos are among the best of the very few handmade pianos available today," Higgins said. "They are still made the way they were made back in the 1800s. No other piano manufacturer can claim the same."

Olivia Yang is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.

Correction: An earlier version of this story mistated the age of piano technician Scott Higgins and the price of the Hamburg Steinway puchased by the festival in 1989 for $65,000. The Post and Courier regrets the errors.