It is, in every sense, the gift that keeps on giving.
And it’s expected to keep giving for the next hundred years.
Elizabeth Grant, the beloved founder and director of the Brandon Conservatory Chorale, established the BCC 40 years ago at Brandon University’s acclaimed School of Music. Over the decades, what began as a chorus for youngsters now encompasses three youth choirs and one adult community choir.
Grant stepped away from the BCC a year ago, but because she has influenced and enriched probably thousands of lives during her extensive and much-hailed career, those closest to her wanted to pay her an extra-special tribute, one they believed she richly deserved.
So at the Chorale’s year-end concert in April 2018, it was announced that a Steinway & Sons grand piano, the gold standard of musical instruments since the company’s inception 160 years ago, would be purchased to reside in the R.D. Bell Hall as a fitting legacy for Grant.
"I was totally blown away," Grant said. "I didn’t know anything about it until it was announced from the stage."
In July of that same year, Grant, along with her daughter Deborah Grant, the latter’s husband Syrjan Tanjga, and two of their three sons, as well as BU’s chief piano technician Mark Cramer, visited the Steinway & Sons factory in Long Island City, N.Y. But as luck — bad luck — would have it, Grant broke her ankle the week before the trip was scheduled. Although Cramer assured her the visit could be rescheduled, Grant was determined the plans not be changed.
"She said, ‘I’m going if I have to crawl through the airport,’" Cramer said with a smile.
The group toured the Steinway facility and met the artisans — all Steinway pianos are created by hand — then Grant had the chance to play a number of instruments and personally select the one that would be her living legacy. She chose Model B #609210, which is now ensconced in the R.D. Bell Hall, and which is affectionately known as "Liz."
"It was something else," Grant said of her selection. "It just seemed to me to be the best one to be accompanying choirs. It’s a fabulous instrument. We used it for my last year as the choir director."
Which confirmed she had indeed made the right choice.
The tribute was the brainchild of Cramer, whose piano shop at the university is right under the R.D. Bell Hall where the Chorale rehearses.
"I could hear all these wonderful voices and Liz’s heel thumping out the beat," Cramer said. "And that’s really where this whole idea came from.
"It dawned on me that often we wait too long to honour people, and many times we don’t honour them until after they’re gone. Liz is so full of life and vitality that I wanted her to enjoy a living tribute."
So Cramer approached Deborah to ensure the piano purchase was something the family would appreciate as a legacy. Not only did they approve, Deborah and her husband made a significant financial contribution to the effort, without which Cramer said the committee could not have moved forward.
Steinways run in the neighbourhood of $150,000, give or take a few tens of thousands. And while a loan was taken out to pay for what remained owing on the piano, fundraising efforts have been underway since the purchase was made to gather the monies necessary to fully pay off the loan.
And the approach to the fundraising is as unique as the project itself. Sixty-five of the 88 keys on "Liz" have been sold, and 23 remain available for purchase. Each key is $900, and Heidi Howarth, a BCC board member who’s on the fundraising committee (and who, along with her husband Scott, bought an octave because they "wanted to get things started"), said she’s hoping people will embrace the concept.
"I just didn’t want this legacy that Liz started to die," Howarth said. "And there’s a commemorative plaque that’ll be displayed alongside the piano featuring the names of all the donors who have purchased a key."
The monies raised will also contribute to an endowment fund to ensure the lifelong maintenance of the piano, according to School of Music Dean Greg Gatien. Grant has made an "incredible impression" on BU and the community at large, Gatien wrote, and the "stunning" piano she chose "will demonstrate our continued commitment to provide excellent equipment, instruction, and musical experiences at Brandon University for generations to come."
It’s Cramer’s wish that people, especially those in the choral community, consider purchasing keys, or even banding together to do so, because the whole intent behind this tribute was not only to pay homage to Grant, but to uphold choral singing.
"Because that’s really Liz’s legacy," Cramer said. "She’s inspired choral singing, and also many of her students to follow in her footsteps as conductors. And that’s why we wanted a really outstanding instrument to be her legacy.
"I want everyone who has had a role in choral music to say, ‘This is our cause.’ Choral organizations, church choirs, anyone who’s ever experienced the joy of singing in a choir — we really hope that people will come up with creative ways to gather around the piano. We have this sacred hall of choral music because that’s what Liz did. Choral music has been handed a wonderful setting and a wonderful instrument and a wonderful future.
"The hope is that people — organizations — will purchase a key. Because this piano’s likely going to be around for a century. And because of this six-foot-tall plaque, the hundreds of students who pass through over the years will be able to see the story of the people who helped make this happen."
To contribute to one of the remaining keys, visit BrandonU.ca/Give or call the Office of Advancement at 204-727-7374 or 1-877-282-4483. Donations may also be made by mail to Brandon University Foundation, 270-18th St., Brandon, MB R7A 6A9. All donations are tax deductible.
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