The Steinway piano at First Baptist Church of Baton Rouge has produced six decades of music for the congregation and the community.
So as the church celebrates its 60th anniversary of worshipping in its sanctuary, the baby grand will be in the spotlight at 5 p.m. Sunday.
“The church has been in existence for 104 years, but we’ve been in this sanctuary for 60 years,” says Jason Haynes, the church’s pastor of music and worship. “The Steinway has been the piano we’ve used in the sanctuary during that time.”
Except in the past year, when it was sent to Steinway & Sons in Astoria, New York, for restoration.
“It had reached the end of its life,” Haynes says. “So, the congregation raised the money to have it refurbished.”
Stephen Nielson is grateful for the church’s efforts. He’s the Steinway piano artist who will headline the church’s celebration concert, which also will include performances by church musicians.
“I want to compliment First Baptist Church for their care and love for fine musical instruments,” Nielson says. “They did it first with the restoration of their organ and now with their Steinway. And in this day when so many churches are forgoing their fine instruments for technology, it means so much for musicians.”
Nielson’s Sunday appearance won’t be his first in Baton Rouge. He’s also performed and conducted master classes at LSU as part of the Steinway duo Nielson and Young. His piano partner, Ovid Young, died on Aug. 24.
“We were a duo piano team for 40 years, and in that time, we performed about 3,500 concerts,” Nielson says. “It’s difficult, but you have to move forward and be grateful for the partnership when looking back. We had the opportunity to perform great music in so many great venues. Ovid’s death doesn’t erase that, and I treasure it.”
Nielson will travel from his home in Dallas to Baton Rouge on Saturday and go straight into rehearsals with First Baptist instrumentalists and vocalists. He’s prepared a mix of classical and sacred solos, which he’ll perform after familiarizing himself with the piano.
“Each piano is different, so you have to get to know it,” he says. “It’s a challenge, but I enjoy it. I’ve been fortunate to be able to play on so many great instruments throughout the world.”
The celebration isn’t limited to the church’s membership.
“We want the city to know that this is partly a city celebration, too,” Haynes says. “Our piano and sanctuary have been used quite a bit by so many other groups in the city. Opéra Louisiane has performed here, as has the LSU School of Music and Baton Rouge Symphony. And they’ve all used our piano.”
The church staff noticed years ago that the Steinway was falling into disrepair with worn keys and hammers. Each Steinway piano is handmade, and no two are the same, so the only company that could expertly restore the instrument was its maker.
“It was playable, but it wasn’t sounding very Steinway,” Haynes says.
The instrument was packed into a truck nine months ago and returned to Baton Rouge earlier in September.
“It’s the same instrument with new hammers, and the keys have been refurbished,” Haynes says. “A lot of people don’t know this about Steinways, but the case of their grand pianos is one piece of wood. Other companies construct their grand pianos out of several pieces of wood. Our piano has the same case and the same harp. It’s an amazing instrument.”
The church will add its recently restored organ to the concert, which will include audience singalongs.
“We’re known for the acoustics in our sanctuary and our instruments,” Haynes says. “We want the community to come out and help us celebrate both.”