A Very Happy 30th Birthday

Words by Melanie Crandall 


The Sun Valley Summer Symphony recently acquired a Steinway grand piano. OK, nod. Not exactly front-page news, right? But take a moment to consider that this instrument costs as much as a condo at the base of Warm Springs. The Concert Grand Model D, like the one that will grace the Pavilion stage this summer, takes nearly a year to build and comprises 12,000 individual parts. And, pianos like this are crafted entirely by hand at only two factories in the world, just outside of New York City and in Hamburg, Germany.

In the professional music world, all pianos are not created equal. And a piano from Steinway & Sons, a venerated 161-year-old brand that even the most non-music minded among us would recognize, is without equal. Their pianos are considered the best of the best. And many of the world’s finest professional pianists will play no other. They’re sort of like Range Rovers in Sun Valley. If you can afford one, there’s one in your garage.

Acquiring its own Steinway has been a priority for the Symphony since 2005 when the organization first began renting them from reputable dealers in San Francisco. The pianists who perform with the SVSS are the best in the world, from Yefim Bronfman and Emanuel Ax to Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Yuja Wang. The quality of the instrument on which they perform reflects the organization and has a direct impact on the quality of their performance. When an anonymous donor stepped forward with a lead gift (think of it as the down payment on that condo), the campaign to raise the remainder of the funds got off to a running start.


Selecting a piano of this quality is a process unto itself. Think about buying your first car—a highly personal and painstaking decision—and then add a little stress, a lot of intensity, and the ears of many, many well-tuned patrons to that decision. (With its cost, perhaps a buying a home is more apropos.) It’s not uncommon then for orchestras to choose a master pianist to make the decision for them. For this, the Symphony turned to one of the world’s most accomplished pianists and Sun Valley Summer Symphony friend and frequent guest artist Jean-Yves Thibaudet. Jean-Yves has selected pianos for LA’s Walt Disney Hall, the Houston Symphony, and others.

Steinway selections are made only at their factories in New York and Hamburg. Timing was serendipitous as Jean-Yves was scheduled to perform in Hamburg in January as part of a scheduled tour. Longtime Sun Valley Summer Symphony supporters Dan and Martine Drackett decided to make the journey to Europe to hear their friend perform and with any luck, observe the selection process. On January 10, 2014, the stars aligned. After a tour of the Hamburg Steinway headquarters and factory, the Dracketts met up with Jean-Yves in the onsite selection room with six “candidate” pianos lined up and ready.

The Dracketts witnessed a two-hour process that was both exacting and exciting. Jean-Yves’ fingers flew as he tested the resonance, clarity and articulation of each instrument. Playing everything from big, loud pieces to soft, delicate sounds, he was able to hear and feel the subtle differences of each piano. Although two emerged as favorites, the winning piano was selected for its powerful sound, an important consideration given the external, ambient noise and other factors presented by the open-air Sun Valley Pavilion.


A native of France, Jean-Yves Thibaudet is one of the world’s most sought-after soloists. The New York Times has been effusive, saying, “every note he fashions is a pearl…the joy, brilliance, and musicality of his performance should not be missed.” Thibaudet brings natural charisma and remarkable musical depth. He’s a prolific performer around the globe, has recorded more than 50 albums, and boasts a long list of kudos.

In 2001, France awarded Thibaudet the prestigious Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. Closer to home, The Hollywood Bowl honored Thibaudet for his musical achievements by inducting him into its Hall of Fame in 2010. He was the soloist on Dario Marianelli’s Oscar® and Golden Globe award-winning score for the film Atonement and for the Oscar®-nominated Pride and Prejudice score. He also recorded the soundtrack of the 2012 release Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s easy on the eyes (sit close when he performs, ladies) and stylish, with a concert wardrobe by celebrated London designer Vivienne Westwood.


Perhaps the best part of the story is that you get to hear piano number six’s debut and Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s tremendous talent on August 6. Jean-Yves, accompanied by the 120-member-strong Sun Valley Summer Symphony, will perform Saint-Saëns’ Concerto No. 5 in 5 Major for Piano, a piece that promises to showcase the range of the instrument Dan Drackett has named “the black stallion” for its raw power.

In addition to providing an excellent instrument for resident and visiting pianists to play, the Jean-Yves Thibaudet Steinway will help cement the Symphony’s reputation as one of the finest orchestras anywhere. Dan puts it into perspective: “Acquiring its own Steinway is huge for the Symphony as we celebrate our 30th anniversary. This represents that we are a very serious symphony with a dedication to excellence that is uncompromising.” And aren’t we lucky to have it in our own backyard.


6:30 pm
Ravel: Rapsodie Espagnol
Saint-Saëns: Concerto No. 5
in F Major for Piano, Opus 103
“The Egyptian”
Alasdair Neale, Conductor
Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Piano