Sac State Torchlight

Piano program reaps benefits of donor support

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Student Courtney Tackitt takes a lesson from Music Professor Richard Cionco at the University’s prized Bösendorfer piano.

If you close your eyes and open your ears, you can hear the rich notes and tones of Johannes Brahms and Franz Schubert, just as they composed and played centuries before.
You’re not in Hamburg, but Sacramento. Capistrano Hall, specifically. But the dynamics of the concerto enveloping you are much closer to Austria than Arden Way, thanks to the antique Bösendorfer Concert Piano being played.
Using historical instruments allows the students to go deeper into their studies, says Ernie Hills, chair of the Department of Music. Students study not only composition, but the instruments of the period, the venues and acoustics. Much like seeing an original Shakespeare production in a traditional Elizabethan theater with period costumes and script, hearing a 19th-century piano concerto on the Bösendorfer is magical, Hills says.
“For our students to play on a piano of such historical significance is profound,” he says. “They get the experience of performing music from that period, like it would have sounded during that time.
“This is not a museum piece for us. It’s a living instrument.”
The 1880s Bösendorfer was donated by Richard Graves, a longtime supporter of the University piano program. Professor Lorna Peters met Graves more than a decade ago when they were both researching specialists who could restore antique pianos.
Graves bought the Bösendorfer, but a few years later decided to purchase a more modern piano for his own use, she says.
“He knew about my passion for the (Bösendorfer), and asked if we would ever be interested in it. I didn’t think much about it, but a couple of years later he said he wanted to donate it,” she says. “I was overwhelmed.”
To honor the donation, Peters organized a gala performance last April attended by a record number of faculty, alumni and program supporters. The student performers that night “provided such incredible, beautiful energy,” Peters says. “They were a shining light.”
Graves and fellow donor Mary Schnetz have been wonderful and generous supporters of the Sacramento State Piano Series for many years, says Richard Cionco, professor of piano.
Performers themselves, Graves and Schnetz have both given year after year, and also have been sole sponsors of several artists as they come to the campus to perform solo recitals, Cionco says.
In addition to the Piano Series, Schnetz created and funded the Fine Arts Piano Scholarship and the Fine Arts Piano Scholarship Endowment to honor her parents,
Earl O. and Mildred E. Schnetz.
“This scholarship gives many pianists opportunities to study they might never have had,” Cionco says.
Schnetz and Graves not only support the Piano Series, they attend, Cionco says, often bringing guests who contribute to a “wonderful energy” of music appreciation and philanthropic support.
 “I believe they are both strong supporters of the program because they themselves are pianists, and they have faith and trust in what we do here. They want to know that this music, and this type of music education, will continue for generations to come,” Cionco says.
“These donations are significant in that they send the message that quality education and quality music are important and cherished in Sacramento by Sacramentans.”
Significant support for the piano program has also come from Stephen Ott and Edward McGrath. Ott has sponsored several recitals during the past 18 years, and is a regular concert supporter.
“His contribution is significant,” Cionco says of Ott. “Dr. Ott is himself a pianist who performs and as such, really enjoys hearing live piano music performed by such outstanding artists.”
McGrath has donated consistently to the Piano Series for more than a decade, Cionco says.  He is the sole sponsor of the Valencia Young Pianist Competition, which brings young pianists to campus for a competition and master classes.
“It is a good way to bring excitement and energy from the outside to the already ever-growing piano program,” Cionco says.
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Dating back to the 19th century, the Bösendorfer piano lets listeners hear music from that period as it would have sounded when it was composed.