As the Orchestra concludes its 2017-18 season at Orchestra Hall, it offers a big round of applause for someone who is not normally in the concert spotlight: retiring piano tuner Jerry Ouska, who served the Orchestra, its pianos and world-famous pianists for 34 years. By Dan Wascoe
If Jerry Ouska dreams about his former job after retiring this summer, he shouldn’t be surprised if those dreams have soundtracks.
Ouska, 70, has tuned the Minnesota Orchestra’s pianos since 1984, regularly tweaking three nine-foot Steinway concert grands, often to the particular preferences of guest soloists. During Sommerfest extravaganzas, he tuned up to five pianos.
He also learned to deal harmoniously with the guest soloists.
“There are so many personalities,” he said, and they know just how they want their instrument to sound.
A few soloists during Ouska’s tenure—Alfred Brendel, for example—brought their own pianos. Others brought their own tuners. Vladimir Horowitz brought both.
Usually, however, a guest artist samples each of the Orchestra’s three in-house grands, testing the touch, the brightness, the overall sound.
“They go back and forth trying them” before choosing one for the performance, Ouska said.
After that, “I’m always here for the first rehearsal,” when the chosen piano is played on stage at Orchestra Hall. Then he consults with the pianist about adjustments, perhaps changing the tone or touch on just a few keys, depending on the piece and the soloist’s performance style. Some artists “just beat on the piano,” he said. “They can be way stronger than most people understand.”
Besides preparing a piano for such power, a technician’s work must be delicately precise. Pressure on individual keys should be 50 grams when depressed and at least 24 or 25 grams coming back up, he said.
Ouska has personally rehabbed a couple of the Orchestra’s pianos, which are either owned outright or provided by Steinway through its Concerts and Artists Department.
He majored in music at Indiana University, where he met his wife, Nancy; she played piano and flute, he played trumpet. Later he sold pianos before becoming a technician. Steinway was pleased with his warranty repair work and sent him to a piano factory for further training. He worked twice with famed Steinway technical chief Franz Mohr.
After the Ouskas moved to Minnesota, Nancy worked in sales for Schmitt Music, Steinway’s dealer in Minnesota. That relationship came into play in 2006 when the Orchestra decided to trade in its “Old 300” grand, which had been in service for more than 30 years.
At the time, the Metropolitan Airports Foundation was seeking a concert grand to place in its main concourse at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport’s Terminal 1. Ouska said Foundation officials were “enthralled” by Old 300’s pedigree at Orchestra Hall, where it had been played by the likes of John Browning, Alicia de Laroccha, Garrick Ohlsson, Jeffrey Siegel and the duo of Ferrante and Teacher. The Foundation agreed to buy it after Schmitt touched up the casework.
Even though the mechanism was in good shape, he said, the piano by then “looked like an old beater.”
Old 300 remains in service at the airport, and although Ouska says, “it wouldn’t be a star piano today” in concert halls, “it was a really good piano back in its day.”
Ouska said he’ll feel “a good deal of sadness” about leaving the Orchestra but as he moves from tuning to gardening and boating, he also is bound to feel a sense of relief. His tuning schedule was rigorous and pressure was intense because “world-class pianists depend on your work. If they’re unhappy, it gets back to the conductor, and the musicians know it.” In addition, if a piano should break down during rehearsal or performance, those musicians’ time “is really expensive.”
That’s why much of his job has required preventive maintenance. In his 34 years with the Orchestra, he recalled only twice when a piano string broke during a concert.
What happened then?
“You keep going until the movement ends,” he said, when a technician can pull the broken string out of the way.” (Most notes are sounded on three strings.)
But if the break occurs in the last movement, nothing can be done and the pianist and orchestra must power through.
Dan Wascoe is a retired reporter and columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and performs with vocalist Baibi Vegners as Nuance/a duo.