Yesterday's report of the piano concert at the White House on Tuesday incorrectly identified the manufacturer of the pianos. All six instruments at the White House were Steinways: the recently rebuilt "state piano," a concert grand supplied by Steinway & Sons in New York and four other concert grands supplied by Jordan Kitt Music in Washington.
The East Room of the White House was wall-to-wall pianos yesterday afternoon -- six of them, spread across three of the room's walls, which is as many as the room could hold while also holding some 140 wives of the diplomatic corps, who had been invited to tea by Rosalynn Carter.
For the six pianos, there were 28 pianists on hand, taking turns at various keyboards, two at a time at one piano and three at each for the encore (Bizet's prelude to "Carmen"). To paraphrase a famous quote of President John F. Kennedy, it was the greatest assemblage of pianistic talent in the room since Vladimir Horowitz played there solo.
At the center, occupying a seat of honor at the White House's own piano, was Eugene List, mastermind of the whole, logistically complicated keyboard extravaganza and the only solo pianist of the afternoon (in Gottschalk's "The Banjo," which includes a fine transcription of "Camptown Races"). His piano contrasted sharply with the five other standard, black concert grands which had been shipped in for the occasion by the Baldwin company. It was brown, with gold-tinted reliefs of historic figures set into the wood -- the same piano on which Harry Truman used to play the "Missouri Waltz" -- indulging in an orgy of nostalgia that Truman surely would have loved.
"That piano just came back last week," said a White House aide. "It's been completely rehabilitated. Mrs. Carter saved that piano -- they were going to dump it."
Six pianos, with 12 to 18 players can have all the power and complexity of a full orchestra, so the piano ensemble brought along a conductor, William Shookoff, to keep the music in order, and aided by his baton they provided a fine example of harmony to the wives of the ambassadors, most of whom looked polite rather than enthusiastic as they sat, nibbling chocolate truffles and hearing the music coming at them from all sides.
For the music-lovers in the crowd, who definitely included the first lady, it was a rare treat, rising to a thundering climax in the 12-handed finale (the "Lone Ranger" section) of Rossini's "William Tell Overture" that surpassed even the big tune from "Rhapsody in Blue" and the stirring melodies of "Stars and Stripes Forever."
But there was delicacy, too, in the light texture of Stephen Foster's seldom-heard "Soiree Polka" which opened the program, and there was a sort of sleight-of-hand, sometimes, in the way the pianos tossed some of their themes to one another, back and forth across the big room. The room was a specially appropriate setting for Gottschalk's "L'Union," which includes brilliant arrangements of "The Star Spangled Banner" and "Yankee Doodle" after an opening which sent great, thundering cascades of sound rolling through the room.
Congratulating the musicians afterward, Rosalynn Carter said she had heard that as many as 900 pianists have been brought together for similar concerts. "Yes," said List, "Gottschalk once had 900 playing together in a monster concert. This one was a mini-monster."
"Well," said the first lady, "a mini-monster is wonderful. You'll have to come back for a real monster."
Out in the foyer, as the party broke up, a string quartet from the Marine Band was playing ragtime music, trying not to sound like an anticlimax after all those pianos.