When Miss America 1953 Neva Fickling was dying of cancer last year, a close friend for nearly 20 years, Joanne Shiebler, knew she had to do something to honor the prominent and beautiful Park City local’s memory.
"Her personality pulled people in," says Shiebler, a Utah Symphony Utah Opera board member. "She was an extremely generous, warm-hearted woman."
Fickling was a student at Wesleyan College's music conservatory in Georgia, and later, married and raised four children. The beauty queen became a part-time Park City resident and concert pianist years later, performing all over the world, including concerts with Utah Symphony. She became ill with cancer in her 70s, and soon it was clear she wouldn't survive.
"The last time I visited her before she died, I asked for her permission to create some kind of legacy gift in her name," Shiebler says. Fickling didn't give her a definite answer right away, but in her final days, her daughter confirmed with Shiebler that Fickling had given her permission for the gift.
And it came just in time for the Utah Symphony, which was in desperate need of a new piano, since the one they had was losing some of its gusto.
Skip Daynes of Daynes Music arranged a showroom at the Steinway headquarters in New York City for the symphony to browse a dozen pianos. The one they picked was originally priced $142,300 and brought down to $118,000 for the occasion. Shiebler asked the music community for donations for the new instrument and covered the rest of the money with her husband, along with symphony supporters Jim and Susan Swartz and the Fickling family.
"The previous piano had been with the orchestra for more than 15 years," says Jason Hardink, USUO's principal pianist. "It was a great one, but it hasn't held up to the kind of scrutiny involved with playing concertos every week."
Hardink isn't the only one who would have had to play the aging piano—visiting musicians, like pianist Inon Barnatan would have to as well. Hardink says it would be a great piano in a different setting, but it just didn't have the power to compete with the orchestra at Abravanel Hall.
Barnatan, who will play with the symphony in January, helped Hardink pick the new Steinway last February, along with piano technician Russell Sorensen.
"We just went down the line and played for each other and listened," Hardink says. "We narrowed it down to two very quickly and spent the rest of the day debating the merits and strengths of these two instruments."
Footage from Utah Symphony's recent trip to select the piano.
One of the Steinways had an extraverted personality, and the sound was in your face. The other was a more subtle but seemed like it could become powerful over time. "You're asking yourself, regardless of how they sound today, which is going to sound best in one year, five years or ten years?" Hardink says. "Something that sounds great right now might not develop the way you'd like it to."
The pianists spent hours debating over the pianos and eventually decided on the extraverted Steinway—not risking a piano that may not grow into its environment.
Hardink says choices like these are one of the curses of being a pianist, and Daynes understands. Daynes Music is the oldest Steinway dealer west of New York State. "The main reason all the pianos are so different is every single Steinway is made by hand." Daynes says. "The symphony's new Steinway has 11,600 parts in it and took over a year to build,"
Daynes says the musicians made a wise choice. "This is the piano patterned after the one Lang Lang claimed was the best piano in the world, and according to the artists who chose it, it's better than that piano." Daynes says. "I expect artists from this point on will rave about it.”
Hardink’s thankful for the gift. "It's the kind of piano you dream about getting," he says. "I definitely hear things in the piano that I haven't heard before."
The former piano will now be used for Utah Symphony's Pops concerts. An older Steinway, used from 1985 to 1996 will be on auction at a fundraiser at Stein Eriksen Lodge on July 5, during the Deer Valley Music Festival.
The Neva Langley Fickling Legacy Concert Steinway Piano made its debut at Abravanel Hall on April 19, and the booming new instrument is sure to honor Fickling’s memory for years to come.
"Neva was a promoter and supporter of the arts," Shiebler says. "Her father told her 'beauty is as beauty does,' and I think that was her lifelong motto—she was an absolutely amazing, wonderful human being."