Behind every great piano and every great pianist is a technician on whom everything depends. For most of the last half century in Columbus, that piano technician has been Ben Wiant.
Two recent events — one musical, the other related to the world of Chinese art — have brought Wiant out from behind the scenes and into the spotlight.
In November, one of the Columbus pianos under Wiant’s long-term care — a 9-foot-long Steinway concert grand — was named “The Benjamin Wiant Piano” in a tribute from the piano’s owner, Chamber Music Columbus.
One of Columbus’ oldest performing arts organizations, Chamber Music Columbus — on whose board I serve as a trustee — has presented world-class artists in Columbus performances since 1948. Katherine Borst Jones, president of Chamber Music Columbus’ board of trustees and professor of flute at Ohio State University, said Wiant’s “expert artistry has been essential to our success as a presenting organization.”
Wiant has had his hands on virtually all of the instruments on which the world’s finest pianists in and visiting Columbus have performed. These elite pianos are a finicky bunch, sensitive to even the subtlest vicissitudes of temperature and cantankerous when jostled around. The instruments are almost as prickly as many of their world-class players, whose feathers Wiant has also stepped in to smooth from time to time. Read more here about Wiant’s career as Columbus’ go-to piano technician.
When Chamber Music Columbus’ Steinway came under Wiant’s care in 2001, it was “virtually unplayable,” Wiant said in a recent phone interview.
Wiant overhauled the instrument, bringing it back to concert condition, and maintained it during and well beyond his time as a Chamber Music Columbus trustee. He gave the piano another major tune-up within the last three years.
“It turned out to be one of the loveliest instruments that I’ve had contact with,” Wiant said.
Wiant’s upbringing in his native China also has been brought to light — along with countless precious Chinese art objects — by the current exhibition The Legacy of Imperial Beijing: The Bliss M. and Mildred A. Wiant Collection of Chinese Art at The Ohio State University.
The exhibition is currently on display at OSU Urban Arts Space through Feb. 1, and features a sample of the more than 600 Chinese art objects Wiant’s parents brought back to the U.S. after their 30-year stint in China, off and on between 1923 and 1951, as Methodist missionaries.
The collection includes paintings by well-known Chinese artists, calligraphy scrolls, textiles and cultural items like cricket cages, snuff bottles and fans. Christina Mathison, exhibition curator and visiting lecturer in art history at OSU, says the 40 Chinese musical instruments in the collection are especially notable. Both Bliss and Mildred Wiant were also musicians and, in tandem with their work as missionaries, established the department of music at Yenching University.
“The musical instruments, I think are of very good quality just because of Bliss Wiant’s own knowledge,” Mathison said. “Because of their background and also their ability to recognize better-quality pieces, in that sense, this collection is quite unique.”
The musical instruments on display in the exhibition include a panpipe-type flute made of bamboo and wood, a jade chime, a jade flute and some traditional Chinese wind instruments with no obvious western counterparts.
Perhaps most noteworthy among the instruments in the exhibition is a rare 18th-century bell that likely had been in the Chinese imperial collection.
“It was one of a set of 16 that was created in the 18th century by the emperor of China, and it would have been used in rituals at the court,” Mathison said. “Compared to pieces that are similar to it, there are very few of them around that we know still exist.”
Other priceless treasures on display include a Diamond Sutra – a sacred Buddhist scroll – penned in fine calligraphy and believed to date from the late seventh or early eighth century. The scroll is thought to have been placed in a cave in northwest China, possibly for as long as 900 years, before resurfacing around 1900 and later coming into the Wiants’ possession.
Said Mathison, “It’s another one of these remarkable finds.”