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The piano takes center stage in Nashville this weekend with a Craig Nies concert and Steinway birthday celebration

Ebony and Ivory

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When it comes to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, Craig Nies has done his duty.

A Blair School of Music piano professor, Nies recently completed a marathon concert series, performing all 48 preludes and fugues from the composer’s Well-Tempered Clavier. He faithfully played all these works with just the right balance of musical grace and academic accuracy. Now he just wants to have fun.

For his concert Friday night at Blair’s Ingram Hall, Nies plans to repudiate all pedantry and pretext to classical orthodoxy. His program will open with a six-movement Bach keyboard partita. But it will be Bach played his way. Instead of playing one of the composer’s six partitas in its entirety and proper order, Nies will take the delightfully heretical approach of mixing movements from different partitas.

“When I was in grad school, I took a Baroque class from a famous harpsichordist who suggested we didn’t have to play Bach’s multi-movement suites exactly the way he wrote them,” says Nies. “He hinted that we could possibly mix and match movements to create a hybrid suite. Of course, he admitted he would never do anything like that himself, but he sure planted the idea in my head.”

The movements of a partita generally consist of various kinds of Baroque dances — minuets, gigues and such. Nies will continue with this “So You Think You Can Dance” theme in the program’s next piece, Ravel’s Noble and Sentimental Waltzes. Mozart’s Sonata in B-flat major, K. 333, Chopin’s Ballade in F minor and the seldom-heard Rachmaninoff-Kreisler “Liebesleid” will round out the program.

Naturally, Nies will be performing his concert on the Rolls Royce of pianos — a 9-foot Steinway concert grand. As it just so happens, Steinway Piano Gallery of Nashville will be marking the piano company’s 160th anniversary with an informal concert, master class and discussion on Saturday at its showroom. Pianist Stephen Nielson of the duo Nielson and Young will perform.

The Steinway story began in 1850, when a German piano maker named Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg moved his family to New York City. He launched his American operation on March 5, 1853, and sold his first piano for $500 (an extremely hefty sum back then) to a New York family. Steinweg anglicized his name to Henry E. Steinway in 1864. He became such a celebrity that Mathew Brady traveled to Manhattan to take his picture.

What Steinway did was modernize the piano. He used the finest maple and spruce to construct handmade instruments. He then placed bronzed cast-iron plates inside the frames to produce remarkably sturdy, powerful pianos. Beethoven routinely broke the strings of his primitive fortepianos. The mighty Rachmaninoff himself couldn’t break a Steinway string.

Speaking of Rachmaninoff, Steinway and his sons — Theodore and William — knew how to market their products. They persuaded the world’s most acclaimed pianists — Paderewski, Rachmaninoff, Rubinstein and Horowitz — to become exclusive Steinway artists. In the 20th century, portraits of these artists were hung in the company’s ornate Steinway Hall on West 57th Street in New York.

In recent months, Steinway has been looking to sell its famous 16-story Manhattan building, whose exterior Beaux-Arts façade was designed by Warren & Westmore, the architectural firm best known for its work on New York’s Grand Central Station. Steinway owns the building but not the land — a funky Manhattan real estate arrangement — and figures it loses about $5 million annually on the property. For now, Steinway remains in its famous showroom.

In the 21st century, the company faces numerous challenges, not the least of which is continuing to exist in a world that’s more focused on Bieber than Brahms. Steinway has responded by diversifying.

The company has gone into the recording business, buying the classical retail site ArkivMusic and starting its own record label. Instrument sales have been flat. Nevertheless, the company’s profits jumped 13.1 percent last year — Steinway trades on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol LVB, for Ludwig van Beethoven. Sales to institutions — Steinway recently sold more than $4 million worth of pianos to the Conservatory College of Music at the University of Cincinnati — keep the money coming in.

Pianist Nielson grew up with Steinway pianos. He greatly prizes the sensitivity of the instrument, which responds to the most subtle nuances of his touch. “Quality will always be Steinway’s best asset,” says Nielson. “That’s why we’ll always have Steinway pianos.”

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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