Rare Piano Returns to Worthington Saturday with a World-Class Makeover and Its Own Concert

Nov 10, 2016

A rare fortepiano from the age of Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn and Schumann returns to its Worthington home Saturday with a five-figure makeover and as star of its own show at Worthington’s historic Orange Johnson House.

Reportedly one of only three extant fortepianos in the United States made by the 19th-century Leipzig-based piano builder Johann Tröndlin, the instrument returns to Worthington after an extensive two-year restoration by Oberlin conservatory piano technician and early piano restorer Robert Murphy.

“This would be a perfect instrument to put in playing order and still have a historical instrument that would basically sound like an instrument that was made in 1825 that people would hear in their homes and in smaller concert or chamber music venues,” Murphy said in a recent phone interview.

“This instrument is extremely well and carefully made,” said Columbus piano technician Benjamin Wiant, who cared for the instrument form 1967 until it was sent to Murphy for restoration two years ago. “I would say it is, with other instruments, at the top of the heap.”

Listeners will have the chance to hear the Tröndlin in performance Saturday, Nov. 12 at 7 p.m. at Worthington’s Griswold Center. With David Breitman, pianist and director of the historical performance program at Oberlin Conservatory of Music, the Ensemble 1816 will perform works by Beethoven and Schubert, before the fortepiano returns to its home in the sitting room of the Orange Johnson House.

Long Journey Home

According to Sue Whitaker, curator of the Worthington Historical Society, the Tröndlin fortepiano’s journey to Worthington began when the instrument was purchased by Count Grigory Orlopp. On Orlopp’s death in 1826, the instrument was passed to Orlopp’s son Paul, and then to Orlopp’s daughter, Amelia Wirth, who brought it to the United States when she immigrated in 1848, settling in Ohio.

The fortepiano was handed down to Amelia’s granddaughter, Jessie Adams, who brought the instrument to the Columbus area in 1924 or 1925 and donated it to the Worthington Historical Society in 1967. Since then, the fortepiano has resided in the sitting room of Worthington’s Orange Johnson House.

The Tröndlin was played occasionally through the years, and Wiant maintained the instrument until about two years ago, when he recommended it be sent out for a thorough restoration.

Through a mutual contact, Columbus musician Amy Guitry, Whitaker found Murphy, a noted specialist in the restoration of historical keyboard instruments.

“The instrument, when it came to the shop, was not playing at all,” Murphy said. “There were a number of broken hammers on it, a lot of missing veneer.”

But the fortepiano still had almost all of its original parts, which allowed Murphy to see exactly all of the original materials the builder had used. Thus, if Murphy needed to make any new parts, he could make exact replicas of the parts the builder himself had made. Also, Murphy could put in working order the few parts that were not working and leave all the other original parts there as a historical record for people to study.

“That was very exciting about this particular instrument. So even though it wasn’t playing, I saw it as a perfect candidate for restoration,” Murphy said.

The Price of Perfection

Restoring the instrument came with a heavy price tag.

“I think that really sunk a lot of hearts on the (Worthington Historical Society) board, because it was a lot of money,” Whitaker said.

The Worthington Historical Society raised funds to cover the restoration costs through a Kickstarter campaign and from a challenge grant that would match responding contributions dollar for dollar up to $12,000. The Orange Johnson Singers also made a donation toward the restoration costs.

“There are music lovers out there who wanted to be able to have this very rare instrument back in concert condition,” Whitaker said.

The restoration work has cost more than the $26,000 Murphy estimated.

“Robert has graciously continued working on anything beyond what he thought he would have to do for that capped amount,” Whitaker said.

Early expert accounts are that the restoration was worth the expense.

“I’m pretty confident that this is a very, very successful restoration, and so that the piano has the qualities that I imagine it had when it was new,” said Oberlin pianist and historical performance specialist David Breitman.

Music in the Sitting Room

The future of the Tröndlin fortepiano as a performance instrument looks bright. In Saturday’s homecoming concert, it will be showcased in monumental works by Beethoven and Schubert for solo keyboard and in collaboration with violin and voice from precisely around the time the instrument was built. Repertoire includes Beethoven’s six Bagatelles, Op. 126 for solo piano.

“I chose these in part because each of them is so different,” Breitman said. “In six miniatures, it’s a dictionary of everything a piano could do in Beethoven’s world.”

Saturday’s program also includes Beethoven’s songs cycle An die ferne Geliebte (To the Distant Beloved), a violin sonatina by Franz Schubert and three of Schubert’s monumental songs.

“These (songs) will absolutely take full advantage of this piano. Schubert is certainly known for having written these songs where the accompaniments are very inventive and play a really important role in the effect that the music makes,” Breitman said.

Beyond Saturday’s concert, there are plans to feature the Tröndlin regularly in performances in the sitting room of the orange Johnson House.

“You have to think about this (instrument’s) being played in a small house, which is where it’s going to live,” Whitaker said. “And we think we can put 14 people in there at a time to enjoy performances. We intend to do performances spring and fall. So if we can continue to develop an interest of people who would be happy to be in a small setting and hear the piano the way it was possibly first conceived to be played, in a social situation in a home, then that’s kind of what we’re trying to replicate.”

Worthington's Tröndlin fortepiano will be featured in performance with the Ensemble 1816 Saturday, Nov. 12 at 7 p.m. at the Griswold Center, 777 N. High Street, Worthington. Pianist and historical performance expert David Breitman and historical piano restorer Robert Murphy will give a lecture-demonstration at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Griswold Center.