Dr. Ilka Araujo walked past security, behind the stage, and up to the Steinway piano.
As her fingers glided across the keys, she knew this was the instrument she had been searching for.
Araujo, an associate professor of music history and piano, had taken her students to watch the 2017 Van Cliburn International Piano competition in Fort Worth’s Bass Hall last spring.
The 30 Cliburn pianists got to pick from three pianos, and one began to stand out.
“On the third day, I just completely fell in love with the (Steinway) piano,” Araujo said. “When you go to a concert and love the sound that’s one player, that’s the player, but then when you hear many people and the sound is great and beautiful for all of them you know it’s something to do with the instrument as well. I just thought it would be great if we had that instrument and I approached the people from the Steinway.”
At first, everyone who heard that Araujo wanted to bring the Steinway to Wesleyan though the idea was a joke. But she got the information she needed and began the difficult process of getting the piano to campus.
Araujo’s dream Steinway, which cost $174,000, arrived at Wesleyan this August. The Department of Music plans to host several concerts featuring Cliburn pianists to display the new instrument, including a benefit concert on Dec. 1 featuring Vadym Kholodenko, who won the 2013 Cliburn while playing a Steinway.
Araujo and Dr. Jerome Bierschenk, department chair and director of choral activities, said the department had been searching for a new piano for years.
“We’ve had a couple of very good instruments donated, but we’ve really been needing a really, really good instrument for a while,” Bierschenk said. “I believe this is the first brand new instrument that we’ve had on campus in recent history. These instruments that are donated are really good pianos, don’t misunderstand, but to have a brand-new instrument on campus, it’s the first time in a long, long time, if ever, that’s happened. We’ve really been needing one because like everything else things age, they don’t work as well as they used to, and the upkeep is rather time-consuming and sometimes expensive.”
The Steinway was built in Hamburg, Germany. Araujo said that Wesleyan’s piano, like all pianos, has a distinct sound and personality, which is why she decided to take a chance and try to acquire it.
“When I heard the piano and I played the piano, I knew it was going to be very difficult to find a very high-quality piano of the same kind, even if they’re made by the same people, so it had to be that piano,” Araujo said. “We’ve never had a brand-new instrument to use so I thought that was very important to get, because the lack of one limited the students’ development. The new instrument would respond to everything they wanted to do and beyond. We just had to make sure that we had the right instrument that would be able to give them the experience and the style for music.”
Araujo gave junior piano major Alicia Smith the first opportunity to play the Steinway when it arrived on campus. Smith said she was honored to be the first student to sit down at the instrument; she played a piece she was working on by German composer Moritz Moszkowski.
“On the Steinway, it’s like the ultimate combination: it’s not too light, it’s not too heavy, it’s just perfect and your fingers just kind of glide along,” Smith said. “The keys go down at just the right speed. It’s quite an amazing piano.”
Smith worked to complete her piece within a month and was happy with the turnout when she performed it at Martin Hall in August.
“For the actually performance it was a surprisingly great turnout,” Smith said. “It was supposed to be like a played-down thing and then there was like faculty, the president and his staff, multimedia and some students, so it was great. It was a nice mixture of everybody.”
With the introduction of what Bierschenk calls “the finest piano in Fort Worth at this time,” the department hopes to draw more varied crowds and performers to its concerts.
“We would like to bring more people to Wesleyan that would come for a great performance going on not necessarily just because they are friends with the performers,” Araujo said. “If we call a great artist to come here and we have the instrument for an artist to come here, we are able to bring everybody that is going to Bass Hall, for instance, here for our concerts because they are coming to listen to that performer, not just their cousin playing.
“This way it will expose our campus to people who probably never came here before, because they never had any business related to us before.”
Araujo said this will also help Wesleyan with recruiting.
“By bringing in a different crowd to Wesleyan it benefits the whole campus because you can recruit more students,” she said. “Those people coming to the concert will not necessarily be music majors. As a result, it benefits other departments because they learn more about the campus and they learn more about what we have to offer.”
The Steinway will also benefit the department’s students in several ways.
“Every single student in this department needs the piano,” Araujo said. “They always need a piano collaboration, so they are already benefiting from that. Having a good and important instrument will also help us acquire more students that are serious. We’ve been growing the department and we hope that this exponential growth will continue. Not just the growth itself in numbers, but also with higher level students. The students we got this year, both transfer and freshmen, are of very high level and we’re very proud of that.”
Bierschenk said the department is responsible for paying for the piano; plans are in the works for several fundraising projects over the next two years.
“We’ve been very fortunate to get support from President Slabach and from the development department with Jim Lewis to help us in fundraising,” he said. “It’s going to be a lot of hard work from a lot of people and we’ve already started fundraising and have some good support already.”
December’s concert will honor the donors that are helping to pay for the piano.
“We are looking for something around $100,000 from donors and ticket sales, though we’re not expecting much from ticket sales, since we want students to be there, but it will be an opportunity to bring donors and recognize them,” Araujo said. “These donors will probably be the ones that by the end give us the $100,000.”
Kholodenko isn’t the only pianist coming to Wesleyan this semester. Kenneth Broberg, who placed second in this year’s Cliburn competition, will be performing on Nov. 3 at the annual Barr Memorial Concert.
“I’m really excited to see and hear them at Wesleyan,” Smith said. “We don’t have to go to them; they’re coming here. Now that we have this piano, a lot of different pianists are going to want to come over. It’s great.”