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Nearly 100-yr-old piano restoration binds western Japan city's past to its future

Pianist Toshiki Usui plays the nearly 100-year-old Steinway & Sons piano in Watanabe Memorial Hall in Ube, Yamaguchi Prefecture, on March 6, 2020. (Mainichi)

UBE, Yamaguchi -- On March 6, a hush fell in the lobby of the Watanabe Memorial Hall in this western Japanese city as music began to flow from a nearly century-old piano -- the first notes to come from the instrument since the early 1970s.

The grand piano, which survived the fire and destruction of World War II and decades of neglect, made its voice heard once more thanks to the efforts of Yoshinao Kato, a restoration expert living in Vienna, Austria. And what an eventful existence the instrument did lead in all the years since it was built by Steinway & Sons in 1922.

From a factory in Germany, the piano was delivered to Ube's Shinkawa elementary school in 1923 as a gift from local industrialist Sukesaku Watanabe and 19 other people who were deeply involved in the city, in a bid to promote the area's cultural and educational development.

In July 1945, close to the end of World War II, Ube was the target of a major U.S. air raid, and the school was hit with incendiary bombs. Six teachers are said to have worked frantically to put out the fire, keeping the piano in the school's music room from destruction. The teachers' heroics saved the instrument for the fingers of famed pianist Leonid Kreutzer, who played a recital at Watanabe Memorial Hall after the war, making the piano a symbol of Ube's musical culture.

However, the piano was deteriorating, and in around 1973 Shinkawa elementary got a new one. The venerable Steinway was carted off to storage, and forgotten.

Later, it was remembered just long enough for someone to suggest scrapping it. However, locals including city officials who remembered how big a role it played in Ube before World War II banded together to save the instrument once more, and in 2007 it was put on display on the second-floor lobby of the Watanabe hall. And there it stayed, a broken and unplayable historical artifact.

Then, in 2012, an association called Saki-Dori Project Inc. was formed to restore the Steinway so it could be used in musical performances once more. The group had the grand piano's condition evaluated, including damage and general deterioration. On Feb. 26 this year, Kato visited Ube to overhaul the instrument, replacing the keyboard and other components.

On March 6, Toshiki Usui, a Japanese pianist now living in Vienna, and local musician Yuki Tanaka performed four pieces on the restored Steinway, including a piece by Georgian composer Vaja Azarashvili. The people gathered in the memorial hall lobby fell silent, letting the notes echoing through the space wash over them.

While the instrument is now fit to play, it is still scheduled for some serious cosmetic work including resurfacing. It is also set to be the centerpiece of a concert scheduled for next autumn to celebrate 100 years since Ube was made a city.

"Almost every piano that was in Japan before World War II was destroyed by fire. I want this piano, this people's treasure which did so much to support culture in Ube both before and after the war, to link us to our next 100 years," commented Saki-Dori Project head Hisashi Manabe.

(Japanese original by Shohei Sorita, Ube Local Bureau)

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