Gallos' donation nets UC Merced a vintage piano

MERCED -- With the stroke of a piano key, administrators at the University of California at Merced hope they have laid the foundation for the school's music program.

A $50,000 donation from Modesto winemakers Bob and Marie Gallo allowed the purchase of a vintage Steinway B concert grand piano.

"Each piano has a different tune," said Hans Björnsson, interim dean of the School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts. "This piano fits the kind of music and fits the kind of space we have here."

The 3-year-old campus offers singing and music theory classes, but leaders hope to develop a jazz program.

"We want to create a jazz and blues center," Björnsson said. "Jazz is very popular in this region, with lots of great musicians. Of the 10 UC campuses, there is no jazz center. Jazz and blues are one America's greatest cultural achievements."

The 7-foot-wide piano was made in 1952 and will be housed in the Lakireddy Auditorium. Concert grand pianos are larger than those normally found in homes. Purchased at Dale Erwin Piano Restorers in Modesto, all $50,000 went toward the piano's cost, Björnsson said.

Second-generation piano restorer Erwin found the piano in San Diego. He said about two-thirds of the instrument had to be repaired, which took about 150 hours. Work included rebuilding the keys and pinblock, rebronzing the harp player, and restringing.

The instrument, along with an accompanying music program, will allow student and faculty recitals, visiting musician and scholar performances and lectures, and a full slate of concerts, officials said.

The Gallos have given thousands of dollars to UC Merced personally or through their foundation. Bob Gallo is president of E.&J. Gallo Winery and sits on the UC Merced Foundation board of trustees. Marie Gallo spent years helping to get the Gallo Center for the Arts built in downtown Modesto.

"Music has been a part of my life since I was a young child," Marie Gallo said. "I've been playing the piano since I was 6. I love the piano and I love the univer- sity, and I wanted them to have a piano. I want young people to have the same advantage I had."

Although music is being phased out of public elementary and high schools in the face of increased attention to math and English test scores, Björnsson said it's still a popular major and minor for college students.

"Music is an essential part of the human experience," he said. "It gives us a basic understanding and appreciation of music -- that really serves to broaden our experience."

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at mhatfield@modbee.com or 578-2339.