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Keys to Success: Franz Mohr – Piano Technician to the Greats – Speaks at West Music Quad Cities, April 27 and 28 PDF Print E-mail
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Mike Schulz   
Thursday, 19 April 2012 08:32

Franz MohrIf you’re familiar with the talents of such classical pianists as Vladimir Horowitz, Arthur Rubinstein, and Glenn Gould, you’re indirectly familiar with the talents of Franz Mohr, who served as the personal concert-piano technician for each of them.

But when, during our recent phone interview, I ask the 84-year-old if he ever wishes his name were as recognizable as those of his late, legendary friends, he insists that no, he doesn’t. And I believe him, because he says it eight times in a row.

 

“No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no,” says Mohr with a hearty, infectious laugh. “I’ll never forget this. We were on tour in Rochester, New York. Horowitz had a concert there, and just before the stagehand opened the door to let him out to perform, Horowitz turns to me and says, ‘Franz, that’s the loneliest place in the world.’ Even for Horowitz, it wasn’t easy to go out to that piano alone.

“And after he said that,” he continues, “I immediately reacted in my heart, saying, ‘Dear Lord, I thank you that I don’t have to go out there! I’m just the piano tuner!’”

Of course, having been employed as chief concert-piano technician for New York’s Steinway & Sons from 1965 to 1992, with a client list that included – in addition to the aforementioned greats – Rudolf Serkin, Emil Gilels, and Van Cliburn, Franz Mohr could hardly be classified as “just” a piano tuner.

Still an active adviser, consultant, and lecturer for Steinway & Sons, Mohr will appear locally at West Music Quad Cities on April 27 and 28, sharing tales from his remarkable career and his 1996 book, My Life with the Great Pianists. (A clearly proud Mohr says, “It’s out in eight languages, including Chinese, and we’re on our 11th printing now in Japan.”) And making the native German’s career even more remarkable, perhaps, is his admission that he came to the piano purely by accident.

 

Franz MohrA Real Love Affair

Born in a small village near Düren, Germany, in 1927, Mohr says that as a youth, “I guess I was gifted, a little bit, on the violin. I started at the university Musikhochschule in Cologne, and after we were burned out of there in the war, and my school was gone, I studied at the Hochschule für Musik” in Detmold. “After seven semesters, I found myself as a violinist, and also played the viola in a string quartet.

“But when I was 24 years old,” he continues, “I developed tremendous problems with inflammation of my left wrist. It was very painful, and I had to have treatments, and finally I had to come to the terrible decision that ‘I cannot be a performing musician. I have to do something else.’ And the whole world broke apart for me. Music was my life.”

As Mohr tells it, though, “The good Lord is behind the scenes if you trust him, you know? And I saw an ad in the paper for this old piano-manufacturing company in Germany – the oldest one, actually, founded in 1774. Rudolf Ibach Sohn. They were looking for apprentices. And I thought, ‘Well, this has something to do with music ... . Why don’t I try it?’”

Stating that he “went through all the phases of piano-building and -tuning and -regulating practically overnight,” Mohr says he was qualified as a master piano technician after one and a half years of apprenticeship. (“And usually it takes three and a half years!” he adds, laughing.) Not long after, he applied for, and accepted, a job as a concert-piano tuner with a Steinway dealer in Düsseldorf.

Franz Mohr“And what a revelation that was,” says Mohr of his 1954 beginnings with the noted piano line, its instruments famous for their durability, detailed craftsmanship, and exquisite sound. “Since 99 percent of the artists in the classical field play the Steinway, that was my dream. I thought to myself, ‘Wow, this is the best instrument ever conceived in the human mind,’ you know? And a real love affair started with Steinway.”

Mohr spent the next eight years serving as a piano technician for concert halls throughout Germany, and says that his relocation to America – just like his introduction to the piano – came through an advertisement.

“We belonged to a small Baptist church,” says Mohr, who had been living in Düsseldorf with his wife Elisabeth and son Peter. “And there was an advertisement in our church’s publication from the German Emanuel Baptist Church, a German-speaking church in New York. It said, ‘If anyone wants to come to America, we’d love to extend a helping hand.’ And so Elizabeth said, ‘Just for fun, why don’t you write to the pastor, and see how things are there for a piano tuner?’

“I did,” he continues. “And miracle of miracles, the pastor contacted me, and said he had contacted Steinway & Sons [in New York], and because of the artists that I tuned for in Germany, I was known somehow. And I got the invitation from Steinway to come to America.”

Arriving in New York in the fall of 1962, Mohr says, “I became the assistant to Bill Hupfer, who was the chief concert technician at Steinway. He was a very famous concert-piano tuner. He traveled all his life with Rachmaninoff – he was amazing. But he was getting older and he needed help, and then when Bill retired in 1965, I became, officially, the chief concert technician at Steinway. And from Bill Hupfer did I inherit all the great artists.”

 

Franz MohrCan You Imagine?”

Mohr says that the celebrated, notoriously eccentric Canadian pianist Glenn Gould “was the first artist I tuned for when I came to America.” And as he tells it, Mohr could not have been more nervous about their first encounter.

“Bill Hupfer was tuning for recording sessions [with Gould] at Columbia Records in New York,” says Mohr, “and one day, Bill came into the studio, and put his hand on his shoulder, and said, ‘Glenn, how are you today?’ And that was the wrong thing to do. Gould then claimed that his shoulder was dislocated because the tuner slapped him on the shoulder, and he sued Steinway for $750,000, because he had to cancel concerts and that kind of thing.” The case, says Mohr, was eventually settled out of court. “But that was a terrible thing, and Bill could not tune for him anymore. So I had to take over.

“Can you imagine?” he asks, laughing. “I was just a few days in America! And I can’t tell you how many times people at Steinway told me, ‘Franz, tune the piano, but don’t touch him!’

“But we became very, very good friends,” says Mohr. “At that time, we did his recording sessions all in Toronto, and so at least once a month I would go to Toronto – working together, and me tuning his piano, and this kind of thing. He always knew when I was coming, and he would pick me up at the airport, and make sure that we would have dinner late at night and then we would talk ... . I miss him very much.”

Mohr says that he was, at first, equally hesitant about his first meeting with Polish-American piano legend Arthur Rubinstein, but for an entirely different reason: “Rubinstein had lost over 50 people, from his immediate family, in the Holocaust. And so I was extremely nervous to work with him. I couldn’t help it. I’m German.

“But he was wonderful,” says Mohr, “and we also became very good friends. I only had dinner with him once, because usually his wife or daughter or son was with him. But once, when he was alone, he said, ‘Franz, let’s go out to dinner after the concert,’ and I’ll never forget it. At dinner, a man came up to our table and said to him, ‘Maestro, I am so excited to see you! I couldn’t come to the concert because I’ve just come from the airport, but I have all your recordings ... !’ And Rubinstein immediately invited him to our table, and he was so excited about this, and we all had a good time together.

“He really liked people,” Mohr says of Rubinstein, “and he was such a likable guy, you know?”

Yet Mohr’s closest professional association, and one of his closest friendships, came with the late Russian-American classical pianist Vladimir Horovitz, whom Mohr worked alongside for 25 years, and whom he calls “without question, the easiest artist to work for.” (During this past January 19’s Carnegie Hall celebration “A Tribute to Horovitz,” event host Julie Andrews went even further, calling Mohr Horowitz’s “best friend” – a recognition that Mohr describes as “an amazing thing.”)

Franz MohrAs with most of the other artists for whom he served as concert-piano technician, Mohr says he was “extremely nervous” about his initial, 1964 meeting with Horowitz. “He had some psychological problems at the time, and there was an unwritten law at Steinway: If you had to deal professionally with Horowitz, and he rejected you, it was the end of your career at Steinway.” And Mohr’s first assignment for Horowitz, as he tells it, did prove memorable.

“Bill Hupfer tuned for him the first Tuesday of a new month at 11 o’clock – his piano on 14 East 94th Street, where he lived. And he told Horowitz that when he retired, I would take over, and he would be happy with me. So that first time, Bill let me tune the piano ... and Horowitz didn’t come down from upstairs.

“So the second month,” he continues, “Bill went with me again, and I tuned the piano, and we waited ... and it was terrible. He didn’t come down again. And Bill said, ‘Franz, from now on, you’re on your own.’”

He laughs. “But on the third month, I was very lucky and fortunate; I tuned the piano, and Horowitz did come down. He met me, and it seemed that he liked me, and from that time on, ever so slowly, I became the most important person in his musical career.

“It took a while before I understood that he wanted to not only have his piano tuned, but regulated,” a process that requires making numerous adjustments to every facet of the piano – including its hammers, weights, and screws – to ensure tonal consistency. “But once I did, he never complained about one note. There was no one else like Horowitz, you know? When he died [in 1989], I inherited a custom-made stool from him, which I will never sell.”

Since his 1992 retirement as Steinway & Sons’ chief concert-piano technician, Mohr – in addition to continuing his work with the company as an advisor and consultant – can frequently be found on the lecture circuit, discussing his My Life with Great Pianists tales and enjoying trips abroad that occur, as he says, “every two months. I’ll do 23 different towns in just a few weeks, and that kind of thing.”

But he also continues to promote the legacies of both his employer and one of his dearest friends, oftentimes traveling the world alongside the celebrated Horowitz Steinway – considered by many to be the most famous grand piano in the world, and the instrument played by Russian-American virtuoso Lola Astanova at January 19’s Carnegie Hall performance.

“Somehow,” says Mohr, “the good Lord has blessed me that I can still do concert work at 84 years old. I have no hearing aid or anything like that; I can tune the best I ever could ... . And at Carnegie Hall, I got a big award [the American Cancer Society Vladimir Horowitz Distinguished Artist Award] along with $10,000.”

Laughing, Mohr says, “That’s the highest fee I ever got for tuning a piano!”

 

Franz Mohr will discuss his life, career, and experiences with legendary pianists at West Music Quad Cities (4305 44th Avenue in Moline) at 6 p.m. on Friday, April 27, and 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, April 28.

 

Copies of Mohr’s book, My Life with the Great Pianists, will be available for sale and signing, and for more information on the events, call (309)764-9300 or e-mail West Music’s Patrick Downing at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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