A few notes were all that were needed to hook Michael Gurt.
The LSU professor of piano tried a couple of keys on one of 15 new Steinway upright pianos in the LSU School of Music’s lobby Monday morning and then gracefully slid into a full-fledged musical passage.
“Quality makes all the difference,” Gurt said.
And the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts delivered the highest quality in pianos to the music school Sunday night.
The foundation purchased the pianos, valued at $125,000 altogether, with proceeds raised through sales of a posthumous, limited edition print made from George Rodrigue’s painting “Take Five.”
The 31-by-26-inch print features Rodrigue’s iconic Blue Dog in black tie sitting at the keyboard of what appears to be a Steinway piano, the same baby-grand style of Steinway that the late Louisiana artist turned into art in 2012 to benefit the LSU School of Music.
Rodrigue, who died Dec. 14, 2013, painted “Take Five” in 2004. He designed the silkscreen before his death, and the Rodrigue Foundation began searching for the original painting’s owner last March to get permission to create the limited edition of 950 prints, which sold for $500 apiece.
Proceeds will benefit both the LSU School of Music and the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts.
“We sold out of the prints this past weekend,” said Jacques Rodrigue, the foundation’s executive director and the late artist’s son. “We anticipated that we were going to sell out, so we put an order in for the pianos in October.”
The Hall Piano Co., of Metairie, which provided additional financial support for the project, delivered the instruments Sunday night. The pianos lined the music school’s lobby while Hall Piano workers placed a final touch on each — brass plates noting that the pianos were purchased by the Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts.
“We’re putting them in the practice rooms on the second and third floor of the music building,” said Todd Queen, dean of the LSU College of Music and Dramatic Arts. “That’ll be our Rodrigue wing.”
Queen’s name for the practice rooms isn’t an official title, only his nickname for the section housing the new Steinway uprights. The School of Music is adding four more Steinways to that number through funds it raised through the Rodrigue Foundation.
“That will be 19 pianos in all,” Queen said. “Before this, 63 percent of our pianos were in fair or poor position. With the 15 pianos we received today, along with the four we’re buying, that number will be reduced to 50 percent.”
The Rodrigue Foundation’s intent always was to purchase Steinways for the School of Music, but its original plan was to raise funds through auctioning a 1913 Steinway baby grand piano known as the Rodrigue Steinway.
Rodrigue painted the instrument in 2011, covering it with Blue Dogs and bright psychedelic swirls after the School of Music’s former director of development, Steve Covington, approached the Rodrigue Foundation with the idea.
That also was the year the Hall Piano Co. installed Steinway baby grand pianos in the LSU School of Music. The company then donated the 1913 piano to the foundation to be used as a fundraising tool.
“It didn’t look like this when we first got it,” Jacques Rodrigue said, pointing to the Rodrigue Steinway standing on the landing outside the LSU School of Music Recital Hall.
The piano was moved from its home at the Sheraton New Orleans Hotel to the music school for the Monday dedication of the new Steinways.
“The piano was brown, and the Hall Piano Co. covered it with gray primer so dad could paint it,” Jacques Rodrigue continued. “He removed the top and painted it on his easel, but he had to get down on his knees to paint the sides of it. He said he would never paint a piano again.”
The piano was unveiled on Nov. 10, 2012, in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center before the LSU-Mississippi State football game. It has since made rounds throughout the state, and such musical notables as Billy Joel, Allen Toussaint and Dr. John have used it in performance. Their autographs can be found inside the piano.
“After my dad’s death, the foundation felt the piano was too precious to auction,” Jacques Rodrigue said. “We decided to keep it, and it will stay at the Sheraton until we build the George Rodrigue Museum, which will be its permanent home.”
Still, the foundation wanted to honor its commitment to the School of Music. That’s when it issued the limited edition of “Take Five,” a painting that sold in the Rodrigue gallery in Japan.
Foundation representatives met in New York with the Japanese gallery directors, who connected the foundation to the painting’s owners, who gave their permission. Each print is numbered and stamped with a specially designed Rodrigue signature in propriety ink to denote authenticity.
The ink appears black to the naked eye, purple in fluorescent light and green in infrared light.
“Take Five” is the third posthumous print released by the George Rodrigue estate. Its title refers to Paul Desmond’s jazz piece “Take Five,” made famous by the Dave Brubeck Quartet.
“Dad was a huge supporter of the arts and education, and we are so proud to partner with the LSU School of Music to continue his legacy,” Jacques Rodrigue said.
The LSU School of Music began working with the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts through Louisiana A+ Schools, part of the Turnaround Arts: Louisiana education initiative designed to improve low-performing schools through arts integration.
“This is a project that started before I came here, but to have this happen in my first semester is exciting,” said Queen, who started his term as dean in July. “And this is exciting for out students, because the one instrument that all of the students in the School of Music is required to learn is the piano. When they have an opportunity to practice on a Steinway, it’s like the difference between driving a domestic car and driving a BMW. You immediately know the difference.”
Gurt said his students immediately will feel the difference.
“They get so frustrated playing on pianos that need work,” he said. “Pianos don’t get better with age. They have to be maintained, and they not only need to be tuned but regulated, which means that the keys should make the same sound at the same volume when you push down on them.”
A distorted volume during practice leads to frustration.
“But the pianos here are great,” Gurt said, placing his hands on the upright’s keys. “We’ll see a difference in our students’ performances, and I think after playing one of these pianos, they’ll be excited to go to the practice room. This is a great day for us.”