A Steinway with a Story

By Barry Kempton

Schubert Club is thrilled to welcome a new instrument to our modern pianos collection which will live in the Thelma Hunter Recital Room of our Museum in Landmark Center. The instrument has quite a story behind it which I am excited to share with you.

The piano, a 7-foot Steinway B grand piano built in Hamburg around 1980 is a gift to us by Sita Ohanessian, a close friend of the Schubert Club. Sita has lovingly cared for the piano since her beloved sister Beatrice passed away in 2008.

I have had the good fortune to get to know Sita in my six years with Schubert Club and, through Sita, I have learned much about Beatrice, an outstanding piano soloist and composer. Born in Baghdad, Beatrice studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London and the Juilliard School in New York. Because she missed her homeland – and contrary to the advice of many who wanted her to stay in the States to pursue a performing career –she returned to Iraq to “teach my fellow countrymen to love music”.

Thanks to a book about Beatrice Ohanessian written by former Schubert Club staff member Holly Windle in 2008 entitled “Baghdad Barcarolle”, I am happy to retell the fascinating story of the Ohanessian Steinway piano.

Beatrice was primarily a concert pianist and held the position of principal concert pianist for the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra. She also composed a number of musical works and received praise for them. She learned that colleagues had brought her music to the attention of the President of Iraq, Saddam Hussein. On receiving recommendations and hearing a recording of her music, Saddam offered to reward Beatrice with a gift from the Iraqi government in honor of her cultural services. She ignored suggestions from her friends of a gold watch or a car, and decided instead to ask for a new piano to replace her ailing Bechstein grand.  

Beatrice was invited to the palace and went apprehensively. She waited to be received by Saddam. She waited a long time. She was eventually told that Saddam was busy in an emergency meeting with his cabinet due to an event in the Iran-Iraq war. He was in the room right next door, but he was not going to be available to see her in person. Instead the offer of a gift from the State was made to her by a palace official. Beatrice told him that she would like a piano, to which the official said they would arrange for her to pick one from the local department store. Emboldened by the fact that this proposal came from an official and not from President Saddam Hussein himself, Beatrice responded that she would like it to be a Steinway and that it would have to be purchased in Germany. To help the official understand, she explained the difference as choosing a Mercedes over a bicycle. To her surprise, the official agreed and she left the palace with a certificate authorizing her to purchase a Yamaha or a Steinway and to have the bill paid by the government of Iraq. On her next concert tour in Europe, Beatrice visited a Steinway showroom and selected a beautiful Steinway B.   

Beatrice was separated from it for a while when she herself moved to the States and the piano remained in Iraq, but eventually it was shipped to the States, and piano and pianist were reunited. How lucky we are that they were! We have been fortunate to count sisters Beatrice and Sita in our Schubert Club family for many years. Taking possession of the Steinway piano, we will treasure it as a dear member of our family of musical instruments.        

Please come visit our free Museum soon to see it!