Our Celebrity Steinway: John Williams, Van Cliburn and Arthur Fiedler were here
I used to go to my grandparents' house all the time and play the piano – the 1929 Steinway – that was my grandmother's piano. She knew how much I loved the piano and understood its place in history, so she bequeathed it to me when she died.
My grandmother, Rosalyn Elkan, was an opera major at Indiana State and moved to Macon, Georgia upon her marriage to my grandfather. For more than three quarters of a century, she was the unquestioned Grand Dame of classical music in Macon.
She received the piano as a wedding present from her father-in-law, Eli Elkan in 1929.
When she arrived in Macon, it was a relative backwater. In 1937, she founded the Macon Concert Association, and she started presenting concerts at Wesleyan Conservatory (incidentally, the oldest women's college in the country). In addition to her work with the Concert Association, she also was in charge of the auditions for the Metropolitan Opera in Atlanta every year. Eventually, she ended up on the national board of the Metropolitan Opera in NY.
Through the years, she became very friendly with all the classical music and opera stars of her era. Back in those days, these artists would travel by train or car. They would play in Atlanta and then she would convince them they should play Macon as they headed to Florida and elsewhere.
She attracted to the stage in her town, names that were ordinarily way too big for Macon, but her connections got them there. Most of them would stay at her house. If they stayed in a local hotel, at the very least, she would have a reception for the artist in her home. Over the years, the list of visitors to her home included every major Metropolitan Opera and classical
star including Robert Merrill, Claudio Arrau, Marilyn Horne, Roberta Peters, Jerome Hines, Artur Rubenstein, Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman, Richard Tucker, Emanuel Ax, as well as conductors like Robert Shaw and Arthur Fiedler.
I met many of these artists and in fact I came upon Arthur Fiedler in her kitchen one day – eating sardines out of a can. I also watched a Yankees game with Emanuel Ax in her bedroom. Jerome Hines wrote an opera on this piano. He spent a couple of weeks sequestered in Macon, writing the piece.
Many of these artists signed the pin block of the piano.
Yet others signed performance programs for me:
• Lenus Carlson, baritone, with Linda Jones at the piano, 1976
• Van Cliburn, 1976
• Robert Shaw, conductor, with Lillian Kallir, pianist, 1968
• Arthur Gold & Robert Fizdale, pianists, 1969
• John Williams, August 2011
Last summer, Jerry Williams and his wife Shirley stayed with us at the inn for a week. His brother, the legendary John Williams, dropped in a couple of times to visit. On one of those occasions, he played the piano. Jerry recounted to John the many stories of the piano.
Jerry and I were in agreement that, without documentation, the legacy of this piano would be lost in a generation or two. For example, short of a signature on the pin block, there was no way of knowing that John Williams had played the piano. A week later, a letter arrived from John Williams, who also acknowledged the importance of documenting the legacy of the piano.
The Steinway is in perfect condition, and even more than a notable piano, it’s an important family heirloom. My grandmother left it to me, knowing that I would fully appreciate its importance and keep it maintained appropriately – and it will be passed down through generations with all of those names on the pin-block, names on the programs, and the documentation of its unique clientele.