Donor-funded Grand Pianos Enhance Experience for Allegheny Music Students, Faculty, and Audiences

Fittingly, the first person to play a new Kawai GX-2 grand piano when it arrived on the Allegheny College campus last summer was a student.

Student sitting at grand piano on stage in chapel
Simone Robinson-Stevens ’24 at the Shigeru Kawai concert grand piano in Ford Memorial Chapel

Simone Robinson-Stevens ’24 was on campus for summer research with piano professor Douglas Jurs when the new instrument was delivered to the choir room. Professor James Niblock asked if she would like to be the first one on campus to play it, so the piano major sat down and played Debussy’s Clair de Lune. Niblock confessed that he was as excited as she was: “I was overflowing with enthusiasm.”

A few weeks later, Robinson-Stevens played a full recital in Ford Memorial Chapel on a recently purchased Shigeru Kawai concert grand piano, the company’s premier line. Both instruments were funded through gifts from alumni to guarantee quality musical experiences for students — the choir room instrument from Howard Kessler ‘65 and his wife, Anne Van Meter, and the chapel piano by Doug and Linda Hooper Ward, both from the Class of 1976. 

The Wards were active in music throughout their time at Allegheny, where Linda was a piano major and violinist. She recruited Doug to play bassoon in the Chamber Orchestra and Civic Symphony. He had minimal experience, but music professor Carlton Woods arranged for him to take lessons with the principal bassoonist of the Pittsburgh Symphony.

The Wards’ gift fulfilled the Music Department’s need for a new piano in the chapel, which is the site of most solo recitals by students, faculty, and guest artists, as well as religious services, weddings, and other events. The weekly performance seminar in which piano students play for each other has been held there since the addition of the new piano, which Niblock described as being “leaps and bounds better than our other pianos.”

The College chose Kawai pianos because of their blend of craftsmanship and modern technology, as well as an existing relationship with the company. Kawai had sponsored Allegheny’s piano competitions for high school students with the loan of a Shigeru piano in 2017 and a cash award in 2019. 

To select just the right instrument for the chapel, Jurs flew to Los Angeles to try out several pianos. For its Allegheny debut on March 1, 2019, he played Camille Saint-Saëns’ Septet with the Alexander String Quartet and other guests artists before a full audience, which included Doug and Linda Ward. 

The Kesslers already supported the College’s vocal programs through an endowed fund in memory of Howard’s mother, which pays for music lessons for vocal and instrumental students. Their recent gift covered most of the cost of a new piano for the choir room, with additional support from Tom ’68 and Suzanne Colley ’69, Bruce Shewitz ’73, Barnes and Sally Taft P’84, and other donors to endowed choir funds.

According to Niblock, director of choral activities, that piano is used more than any departmental instrument, accompanying choir rehearsals, voice lessons, and the performance seminar for voice students. A reliably in-tune piano with a pleasing sound is essential as singers develop an even vocal timbre and accurate pitch memory. 

Everyone involved with the new pianos is thrilled with them. Such fine-quality instruments enhance the experience of students, faculty, and audiences. “An instrument of this caliber helps you imagine what is possible musically,” said Jurs.

Robinson-Stevens agrees. “It really helps with grounding down the details of the pieces,” she said. “With the higher quality of the piano, there’s a different touch to it, and there are different ways you can play dynamically, so it really helps you to feel the pieces that you play and what you’re trying to portray to the audience.” 

As Music Department chair, Niblock explained other benefits to these gifts, including cost savings in maintenance and tuning. Jurs noted that investing in one piano is actually an investment in two, because the Steinway piano in the chapel was relocated to his studio, replacing a lesser quality instrument.

Ultimately, said Niblock, “equipment like pianos reflects what the investment is going to be in the culture of making music at the College.”

With many non-music majors in each ensemble, that culture of music making has produced countless amateur musicians, including the Wards, who have played in the Orchard Park (New York) Symphony Orchestra for 43 years. Kessler, an orthopedic surgeon, has recently taken up the clarinet, following the example of his mother, Esther Kessler, a talented amateur singer, who found great joy in making music.

So, these donors hope, will many future students.