Van Cliburn

The pianos: Shining giants of the Cliburn receive the finest of tuning

Ismael Cunha, from Steinway in New York, tunes the piano onstage before a performance at the 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition at Bass Hall.
Ismael Cunha, from Steinway in New York, tunes the piano onstage before a performance at the 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition at Bass Hall.

Ismael Cunha carefully wipes the sweat from the gleaming keyboard of the 9-foot Steinway concert grand piano between Cliburn competitors’ performances.

On longer breaks, he checks the voicing — to see that notes haven’t become too bright because the felt hammers, which strike the strings to make the sound, may harden a bit under continuous pounding by the pianists. He tweaks the tuning, when needed, before recitals and concerts.

Cunha’s work is part art, part craft, The piano technician knows the complex, powerful instruments better than the pianists themselves. Better, perhaps, than almost anyone.

A piano technician for about 30 years, Cunha’s job back home in New York is to tune and maintain pianos at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. He has tuned for concerts by Tony Bennett, Elton John and so many classical pianists he can’t even begin to count them all.

Cunha flew to Fort Worth for the Cliburn competition to care for the stage pianos. The competitors chose from three Steinways: Two belong to the Cliburn, one of them made in New York and the other in Hamburg, Germany. The third piano, a Hamburg Steinway, was flown in from New York.

Twenty-three of the 30 competitors chose to play the Hamburg piano from New York as the Cliburn competition’s preliminary round began. As the final rounds began this week, all six of the remaining pianists were still using that same piano.

What is the appeal? The answer is simple, but the reasons are more complicated.

“The No. 1 reason this piano was selected by the majority of the contestants is because it’s a very good-sounding German piano. The other German piano didn’t have the same qualities in sound as the other one,” Cunha says.

Cliburn finalist Rachel Cheung knew immediately which piano she would select.

“I think once I put my hands on it, I knew I had to choose it because it just gives me the sound that I wanted, and the touch is really nice,” she says.

Another factor comes into play.

Cliburn competitors come from all over the world, and the world — other than the Americas — plays the German Steinways, Cunha says.

“They grew up with that,” he says.

“The German piano has a particular sound, you could say a brilliant, clear sound, and the American piano has more of a dark sound. It’s a full, dark sound,” Cunha says, adding that he knows pianists who will play only an American Steinway.

Then again, “I have a long experience of selections, I’ve seen hundreds of them,” he says. “I have to say that most of them — people have their mind made up even before they’ve tried out the piano.

“They know what the German piano looks like, the shape of it. There’s an attraction. It’s like a magnet.”

Finally, like any fine instrument, this particular German piano from New York has its own personality.

“It’s a very nice sound,” Cunha says. “A very clear sound, very melodic, not over-bright. I also found that the action on the German piano is much easier to play.”

Cliburn finalist Yekwon Sunwoo of South Korea has similar thoughts.

“Throughout the competition I particularly liked the clarity of the Hamburg Steinway sound, so I tried to use that, I thought it would fit well for the Mozart concertos,” he says.

The difference comes, in part, because of how the pianos are made. The New York factory makes the parts in-house, Cunha said, while in Hamburg, they are purchased elsewhere.

A Steinway piano has more than 12,000 parts, said Nowell Gatica, the Dallas piano technician who is handling more than 40 other pianos needed for the Cliburn.

The 30 competitor host families each get a brand-new Steinway shipped from New York. Two or three other pianos are in the McDavid Studio and the Van Cliburn Recital Hall at the Maddox-Muse Center, for performances and two Steinway Spirio player pianos are in the Bass Hall grand foyer. The rest are positioned backstage for use as warm-up pianos, or for the Cliburn jurors — who are all pianists — to practice on.

Gatica estimates he will do 350 tunings before it’s all over with Saturday.

Cunha, meanwhile, will be tweaking and checking the New York Hamburg until the very last note is played.

Judy Wiley: 817-390-7843, @judygwiley

Andrea Ahles: 817-390-7631, @andreaahles


Through Saturday

Bass Hall, Fort Worth

Final round continues Friday and Saturday. Six competitors will play a concerto with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. $150-$260 round subscription; $45-$180 per concert.

Awards presentation: 7 p.m. Saturday. $30-$40.

The entire competition is on a live webcast hosted by pianists Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe, at Content also is available on demand.

Also, performances by the final three competitors and the awards ceremony will be simulcast on a large screen Saturday. The simulcast starts at 2:45 p.m., and the awards ceremony is at 7 p.m.

The final round will be broadcast in movie theaters around the country, but not in the immediate Fort Worth area. For information and tickets, visit

Saturday’s competitors

Final round, phase 4

3 p.m. (Final concerto)

Rachel Cheung, 25, Hong Kong

Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58

3:45 p.m. (Final concerto)

Georgy Tchaidze, 29, Russia

Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major, op. 26

4:45 p.m. (Final concerto)

Daniel Hsu, 19, United States

Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23

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