Acoustic Upright and Grand: The PianoForte Foundation

Keeping the acoustic piano and its music alive and well in Chicago
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The first and only Fazioli Piano dealer in the Midwest never dreamed of such a thing while growing up in Switzerland and Austria. Neither did he plan to open a showroom and recital hall—through the PianoForte Foundation (pianoforte—whose performances, streamed and archived on their own YouTube channel, have earned an honored niche in the cultural life of Chicago; in fact, he never planned to live in Chicago at all.

The story of how Thomas Zoells founded PianoForte Chicago ( travels a picaresque path straight out of Dickens: Amateur pianist yearns to get into the music business in the worst way… and does, working for a management agency in London. He later joins a Swiss bank, hoping for a transfer to America, and soon lands in New York, which he loves, then is shipped off to Chicago. There he meets a long-lost great-aunt of some means and eventually ends up selling what many consider the finest piano in the world, despite an utter lack of relevant experience in either sales or piano technology.

Zoells grew up with a love of classical music and “a wish to combine music with some form of business, because I knew I couldn’t be a performer,” which led him to get a business degree at the age of 20. As a Chicago-based banker, he found his plan receding rapidly until, on a visit to Geneva, he stumbled into a piano store and, to kill time, tried out some of their high-end pianos. “There was a Bösendorfer, a Steinway, a Bechstein, many others, and three Fazioli grands, which had only come onto the market a few years earlier,” Zoells recalls. “And when I played the Fazioli, I couldn’t believe what I could do with it.”

That night he e-mailed the Fazioli Company to ask where he could see this instrument in Chicago; receiving no reply, he returned home and started calling dealers. “They said, ‘Fazioli? What is that? A pasta?’ I found out there was no Fazioli distributor in Chicago. The Midwest market favored middle-market brands.” So he came up with a plan to sell Faziolis where no Faziolis had gone before. And to make it so, he set up a meeting with Paolo Fazioli himself: Bolstered by an introduction from a mutual friend, and armed with a buttoned-down business plan, Zoells flew to the factory outside Venice.

“Before we started, Mr. Fazioli said he needed to do a couple things. He said, ‘Here’s the selection room, and here are two concert grands. One of them has just been chosen by Aldo Ciccolini, but they don’t have the same design; I made some changes between the two. Why don’t you play a little and tell me what you think?’ I didn’t realize it was a sort of test. When he came in I told him, ‘I like this one better; I feel like it sings a little more.’ And he said, ‘Good answer—that’s the improved version! But the strange thing is that Ciccolini picked the other one.’”

“Mr. Fazioli didn’t know me or understand why I was suggesting this business plan. But he asked a million questions, and by the time we looked up, four hours had gone by, and he jumps up from his chair and says, ‘If you want to do this, it’s fine with me.’”

Zoells used that imprimatur as the cornerstone for an institution tasked with “preserving and promoting the art of the piano in Chicago.” In 2004, he opened PianoForte Chicago in the city’s Fine Arts Building, an 1885 Romanesque masterpiece one block from the home of the Chicago Symphony. Within a month he was hosting his first concerts (including one by Brenda Huang); he has expanded to encompass jazz as well as classical music, with artists such as Paul Barnes, Vijay Iyer, and Ieva Jokubaviciute. The exclusive clientele for Faziolis, which start in the $100,000 range, soon impelled Zoells to add other lines to his inventory; he now carries seven, in an 11,000-square-foot space he bought in 2013 (using an inheritance from that long-lost Chicago great-aunt). A second salesroom opened this fall on North Michigan Avenue, the city’s high-end shopping district.

It's all thanks to what Zoells calls the “goofy plan” he submitted to Fazioli in Venice. “I had no experience in the piano business, but I really loved Faziolis and really wanted to sell them, and I was going to present live music, which was very important to Mr. Fazioli. And through some miracle, he said yes.”