Playing on a grand stage

Posted: Thursday, August 12, 2010

During the 1940s, Maxim Schapiro, a famous Russian pianist, loved to come to Juneau.

Courtesy Of Amy Lou Barney
Courtesy Of Amy Lou Barney

He had become a good friend with Gov. Ernest Gruening, and his wife was great friends with Corrinne Kenway, her roommate at Mills College. Shapiro played two concerts, two years apart, both sponsored by the local Business and Professional Women's Organization, and had wowed his audience. However, the piano he played was an upright in terrible condition.

After his second concert, while at a party at the Governor's Mansion, Schapiro stressed that Juneau needed a big piano - a concert grand piano. He decided to return to Juneau after a concert in Fairbanks the following week and give a benefit concert to raise money. The concert was promoted by the Juneau Concert Association, who had to work hard to publicize the fundraiser and arrange the concert at the 20th Century Theatre on short notice.

Admission for this concert was $1 plus tax, but there was a place for donations as well. After the Intermission, Schapiro took bids on requested pieces. When he didn't like the bid for "Clair de Lune" by Debussy, he closed the lid of the piano, flipped his tails, and said the bid needed to be higher. The highest bid on a piece was on the "Polonaise Militaire" by Chopin for $500, and the second highest was the first movement of the "Moonlight Sonata" by Beethoven for $300. The total raised by this concert was $2,200, almost enough to buy the piano.

Schapiro took the money to San Francisco where, with the conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, Pierre Monteux, he went to the Baldwin Factory. They met with Baldwin himself to choose the piano. Baldwin paid for the shipping to Seattle, and the Alaska Steamship Co. paid for shipping from there to Juneau.

On October 19, 1950, Schapiro and cellist Luigi Silva gave the first concert with the new piano at the 20th Century Theatre. Schapiro took great pleasure in tearing up the note of debt for the piano - donors in Juneau had covered the rest of the price of the instrument.

That was also the first concert of the newly created Alaska Music Trail, a touring concert series which spanned 20 years, stopping in 18 Alaskan communities and seven in Canada. Many famous performers came and performed in the Alaska Music Trail.

An incomplete list includes: Louis Quilico, baritone, Aldo Parisot, cellist, Eva Gustavson, contralto, Rafael Mendez, trumpet, Nan Merriman and accompanist Michi North, Jacob Lateiner, pianist, Reginald Kell, clarinet, Isaac Stern, violinist, Miklos Gafni, tenor, Herman Godes, pianist, Claremont String Quartet, Janos Starker, cellist, Leonard Rose, cellist, Zvi Zeitlin, violinist, Paul Olefsky, cellist and accompanist Raymond Hanson, Fine Arts Quartet, Paul Doktor, violist, Lucine Amara, soprano, Jan Peerce, tenor, The Beers Family, Peter, Paul and Mary, a Russian Ballet, Jussi Bjorling, Marilyn Horne and accompanist Gwen Kaldofsky, Richard Dyer Bennet, folk singer, Nicanor Zabaleta, harpist, Van Cliburn, pianist, Regis Pasquier, violinist and accompanist, Nelly Pasquier, Vladamir Ashkenazy, pianist, Roman Totenberg, violinist, Jose and Umparo Iturbi, Betty Jean Hagen, violin, Bela Urgan, violinist, Arthur Fiedler and the Seattle Symphony, Tomika Kanazawa, soprano, Cesare Curzi, tenor, Bronislav Gimpel, violinist, Donald Gramm, baritone, Ferrante and Teicher, duo pianists, Victor Borge, pianist and comedian, Cornelia Otis Skinner, actress, Dave Brubeck, jazz musician, Inez Matthews, mezzo, Marvin Hayes and accompanist, Althea Waites-Hayes, and the New Christy Minstrels.

After Schapiro's death in 1958, his wife, Jane Schapiro Livingston , continued organizing the Alaska Music Trail concerts until 1970, when she became too sick with Lou Gehrig's disease.

The piano itself, a 9-foot Baldwin concert grand, resided in the 20th Century Theatre until the late 1960s. After a roof leak caused damage, the piano was housed in the State Museum under the Eagle Nest. It would be moved to the High School Auditorium when needed for concert.

Then, in 1974, it was sent for rebuilding at Darrell Fandrich's workshop in Washington state. When it returned, it was housed in a former mortuary owned by the Assembly of God Church and, finally, at the Northern Light United Church, where it is today.

This piano has played a part in productions by every music group in Juneau, and in many private concerts and recitals. Now, it is in need of new hammers. Dr. Alex Tutunov, another Russian pianist who loves Juneau, has graciously offered to play a fundraiser to pay for the repairs. The concert will be Saturday, Sept 18, at 7:30 p.m. at the Northern Light United Church, with proceeds going to pay for new hammers. For those unable to attend, donatations can be sent to: Alaska Music Trail Piano c/o Juneau Arts & Humanities Council, 350 Whittier Street, Juneau, AK 99801.

• In compiling this information, Mary Watson had input from Connie Davis, Jeannie Kline, Elizabeth Evans, Virginia Breeze, David Kenway, Dr. Robert Wilkins and many others. Other sources include the archives of the Juneau Empire, Claire Fejes book "Cold Starry Night", and Alaskan history sites.

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