New piano for Utah Symphony commemorates legacy of 1953 Miss America

Utah Symphony • Steinway was donated by friends of late Park City resident and patron of Utah arts.
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The Utah Symphony's new $150,000 Steinway grand concert piano makes it debut this week when guest pianist Louis Lortie performs all three Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerti.

If you think the enormous sum was taken out of the Symphony's budget, fret not.

The instrument was donated to commemorate the lively and generous life of Neva Langley Fickling, who died of cancer in November.

Fickling, who split her time between Park City and Macon, Georgia, was a concert pianist and advocate for the arts. She guest-performed with the Utah Symphony, was on the council of the Deer Valley Music Festival and served on the board of Salt Lake City's Gina Bachauer Piano Competition.

To the rest of the country, however, Fickling was Miss America 1953 — a time when beauty queens were as famous as four-star generals and movie stars.

Fickling was a music-studies major at Macon's Wesleyan College when she won the Miss Macon pageant. She went on to win the Miss Georgia contest and then Miss America. She won the talent portion of the national competition for her piano rendition of "Toccata in E-flat minor" by Aram Khachaturian.

"Neva was an extraordinary person," said Joanne Shiebler, a friend who serves on the Utah Symphony | Utah Opera board. "She did so much for the arts."

When Fickling became ill and it was evident that she would not recover, Shiebler asked if she could spearhead a gift in her name.

"I knew the Utah Symphony was in desperate need of a piano," Sheibler said. "She was very moved."

In all there were 45 donors who gave between $100 to $24,000 each.

In February, several donors — as well as Shiebler, Fickling's Georgia family, Utah Symphony officials — met pianist Inon Barnatan at the Steinway & Sons New York factory to select a piano. Because these pianos are hand crafted, each one has its own unique sound.

With 10 pianos to choose from, the group quickly narrowed the selection to two, said Utah Symphony Principal Symphony Keyboard Jason Hardink, who went with the group.

"It got a little contentious," he joked. Barnatan and Hardink tested each of the two pianos for about eight hours before a choice was made.

"It was very versatile and had a tremendous range," Hardink said of the final selection. "It's also able to make a big sound when you need it. It needs to stand up to the orchestra's sound."

The purchase is "a dream come true for the orchestra," Hardink said. The previous piano had been used for about two decades, and despite care and attention, it was showing it age. A few guest pianists had even complained about its condition.

With the new Steinway, ,"soloists will be saying, 'Invite me back any time,' " Hardink said.

The old piano will be auctioned off at the Deer Valley Music Festival 10th Anniversary Gala on July 5 in Park City.

Lortie will be the first to play the Steinway. But in January 2014 Barnatan will come to Utah to perform Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 with the Utah Symphony. The Fickling family will be there to celebrate the matriarch's life.

Twitter: @davidburger —

A grand piano

Guest pianist Louis Lortie will perform Tchaikovsky's three piano concertos on the Utah Symphony's new $150,000 grand concert piano. The program also features Schoenberg's imaginary film score "Begleitungsmusic zu einer Lichtspielscene."

When • Friday and Saturday, April 19-20, at 8 p.m.; pre-concert discussion at 7 p.m. features conductor Thierry Fischer and vice president of artistic planning Toby Tolokan.

When • Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple

Tickets • $18 to $53 in advance; price increase $5 day of performance; 801-355-2787, or at the box office.