Classical Minnesota Stories

Grand pianos strike a chord with travelers at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport

Pianos at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport include 'Old 300,' a Steinway in the main concourse of Terminal 1.Dan Wascoe

June 11, 2018

You don't need carry-on luggage, an airline ticket or a music degree to play the three grand pianos at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP).

But you likely will need security clearance and a background check to get to the 9-foot, Steinway concert grand — "Old 300" — in the shopping concourse of Terminal 1 (Lindbergh). That's the instrument once played by some of the world's most talented fingers on stage at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis.

The second piano, a baby grand, is open to all comers in the sometimes-stressful downstairs baggage-claim area. It's not far from a sign that says, "Keep calm. PLAY THE PIANO," with an arrow pointing to the nearby Kawai.

A third grand, a 6-footer, is located in Terminal 2 (Humphrey).

On a recent afternoon, travelers and greeters near Terminal 1's baggage carousels could listen to live, unscheduled performances by several pianists. Their repertoires ranged from a Bartok Romanian folk dance to sonatas by Beethoven and Mozart, from rags by Scott Joplin and ballads by the Gershwins to the more topical classic jazz tune "Come Fly With Me."

Mar Hylbak, a volunteer at MSP, said the baggage-claim piano gets played a lot — often more than half the time during her twice-monthly four-hour shifts.

Despite the bustling environment, airport employees and volunteers often seem to pay special attention to the music. One volunteer took time between tunes recently to thank the piano player. The driver of an electric golf-cart shuttle gave the performer a thumbs-up signal and a smile.

"I'm surprised at how complex some of the pieces are," Hylbak said. "It almost sounds as though people are practicing. Now those are pianists."

The pianos are part of the Arts and Culture program of Airport Foundation MSP, directed by Robyne Robinson. The program oversees music programs, displays and art installations.

Music has included performances by singers, a jazz guitarist, Celtic harpist, even a balalaika player. The idea is "to bring people together," she said. "It's their airport."

The foundation arranged to bring the pianos to Terminal 1. The Kawai was donated by a St. Paul woman with the caveat that she still be allowed to play it, and it has become the airport's populist keyboard, while the Steinway upstairs carries a richer pedigree and a more select roster of performers.

Jerry Ouska, who's retiring at 70 this year after 34 years as the Minnesota Orchestra's piano tuner, knows that pedigree intimately. He remembers that Old 300 was already at Orchestra Hall, along with two other concert grands, when he began working there in 1984. The number helped identify it as part of Steinway's Concerts and Artist Department. The orchestra eventually decided to buy the instrument from Steinway, but not before it got rehabbed.

Visiting piano artists, who get to choose among in-house pianos for their Orchestra Hall concerts, "wouldn't have anything to do with it," he said. The instrument's touch was dead, and it looked old and beaten up.

"Part of my work was to make it playable," he said, including filing and hardening the hammers and regulating the keyboard action by reweighting the keys. After that overhaul, he recalled that one of the first subsequent soloists, Ivan Moravec, "said he loved the sound of it."

During the late '80s, after Ouska installed a new action mechanism and hammers, specifying the use of German-made parts, Old 300 became the orchestra's house piano. But in 2006, when the orchestra retired one of its other pianos, it faced a decision about the 30-year-old 300: Keep it, or trade it in to Steinway's Minnesota dealer, Schmitt Music.

One of the pianos at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport
Writer Dan Wascoe plays Old 300 at MSP.
Dan Wascoe

Ouska's wife, Nancy, worked in sales for Schmitt and heard that MSP's Airport Foundation was looking for a grand piano that could be played at the main terminal. Schmitt touched up the piano's aesthetics — "It looked like an old beater" — and the airport acquired the instrument, partly on the strength of its prestigious history.

These days, the airport keeps a cover on Old 300 in the main concourse between performances and carefully schedules who gets to play it. Few realize that their predecessors include concert-hall luminaries such as John Browning, Alicia de Laroccha, Garrick Ohlsson, Jeffrey Siegel and the Ferrante and Teicher duo.

Today's players at MSP choose their own programs, sometimes spontaneously. One recalls noticing a shy child listening as he played Old 300, prompting him to switch to Sesame Street's "Rubber Ducky." He also remembers playing the movie theme from "Laura," not expecting much reaction, until a passerby quietly approached from behind and whispered "Laura" in his ear before walking away.

Ken Olson tunes all three of MSP's pianos, usually every three to four months. Because the terminals lack uniform humidity controls, the airport "is hard on pianos," he said.

The workplace also can be "kind of noisy" as he bends his trained ear to the task, "but I just have to listen closer" as he adjusts the strings and keyboard actions. He does, however, enjoy watching the passing parade of airport users.

Robinson encourages a wide variety of music, some of it raucous. But in the five years she's worked at the airport, no pianist has been asked to stop playing.

"Some try to panhandle, and we don't allow that," she said. "But we try to be nice about it. We watch and listen, but we don't want to be the piano police."

In any case, Old 300 continues its musical career at its busiest-ever venue. In a concert hall, "It wouldn't be a star piano," Ouska said, but it was "a really good piano back in its day." Its age gives it a more colorful sound, he said, compared to what he called a "more sterile" output from newer pianos.

"I'm not sure how many people in the [concert] hall noticed it," he said, "but artists do."

And now, MSP travelers, if they're lucky, can listen, too, and, if they qualify, even take a turn at the keyboard. No seat belts required.

Dan Wascoe, a retired reporter and columnist for the Star Tribune, has played both of Terminal 1's pianos. He performs with vocalist Baibi Vegners as Nuance/a duo.