By Ricky O’Bannon
Just a few hours before Lukáš Vondráček strikes his opening chords for Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, Greg Hudak stands alone on the stage of the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall with a rolling suitcase full of tools, listening carefully and fastidiously tweaking and adjusting each of the 88 keys in the nine-foot Steinway’s arsenal.
Hudak has served as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s piano technician for 26 years and worked as the head piano technician at the Peabody Institute for 20 years. With those decades of experience, he has refined his craft, learning how to make the most out of ever-smaller movements.
What Hudak is chasing is ephemeral. Correct tuning is first on that list, followed by making sure the workings of the piano’s mechanical action, trapwork and damper systems are functioning properly.
“Of course then it goes out by the next time you come to the piano. It is [ephemeral],” Hudak said. “It’ll change from one week to the next depending on the weather, who is playing the piano and what the repertoire is.”
The third item on that list is as much subjective artistry as technical engineering. Voicing refers to the tone quality of the piano, which can be adjusted to be brighter, more mellow or delicate to meet the demands of the pianist and the music being performed. Hudak explains that a pianist would want different voicing to play Mozart than Tchaikovsky. In the case of that evening’s Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto, the voicing needs to focus on heightening the power and dynamic range of the instrument.
“Voicing is something you can read about, but you really have to learn that by doing,” Hudak said. “Sometimes you have to go beyond the books.”
Hudak first became interested in being a piano technician after graduating with a degree in composition when he and a roommate started taking apart an old upright piano to figure out how it worked. By chance, one of their neighbors was a lifelong employee at the Knabe Piano Factory in Baltimore.
“We’d go to his house and sit at his feet to hear his stories and get guidance,” he said.
Later, he saw an opening at a piano rebuilding shop at Georgetown, where he learned for three years before going out on his own.
“It allowed me to stay in contact with music and classical musicians,” Hudak said. “I sort of feel like I have a thing I do that they can’t do, which they rely on me for. There’s a certain satisfaction in that.”
Part of the job of piano technician is to be something of a creative collaborator with performers. Hudak usually sits in on the first rehearsal before a concert and will talk with soloists to find out what they want from the instrument. Some soloists will go through note-by-note, telling him which notes they want a little louder and which notes they think are too brassy or dull.
Over the years, Hudak said he has learned what different artists want and how they hear. He also has learned the character of the pianos he works on and how to work through their individual tendencies.
After he tunes the instrument, Hudak often sits in on the concerts, where he will listen to the piano — often with bated breath.
“It’s very stressful,” he said with a laugh. “Especially if it’s a big concerto like Rachmaninoff Three. Even the slow movement has these big crashing chords, and you just hope to get through it without anything going out of tune or a string break, which happens rarely.”
After all, he said it only takes one note out of place to give a bad impression of the piano. But when the tuning and voicing is on point, and the soloist hits those final chords, Hudak said it is a thrill — if also a bit of a relief.