The Sound Conservatory - The Echo

It’s been nearly a year since The Sound Conservatory, 1600 2nd Ave., Rock Island, moved to its current space, and the bustling music school, store and concert venue continues to grow.

In a new summer concert series, the sophisticated, stunning building (in the former 1901 Illinois Theatre) hosted over 100 people for acclaimed jazz pianist Laurence Hobgood and his trio on Sunday, May 28. Polyrhythms (which presents the Third Sunday Jazz Series in the Quad Cities) was the main sponsor for Hobgood – a virtuoso pianist, collaborator, composer, arranger, producer, educator, Yamaha artist, multiple Grammy nominee and 2010 Grammy winner. 

Scenes from the Laurence Hobgood Trio concert May 28, 2023.

Under 16-foot-high ceilings and several chandeliers, the dazzling trio presented a breathtaking variety of standards and originals, including mind-bending, beautiful re-imaginings of classics like “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” “I Can See Clearly Now,” and “If It’s Magic.”

Those lucky enough to attend the May 28 concert could indulge in wine and charcuterie for sale by Rock Island’s own Skylight Luxury Lounge. The way that generous (and generously talented) Sound Conservatory owner, Andrzej Kozlowski sees it, part of his mission is partnership and serving the community (and he’s only lived here since early 2022).

Sound Conservatory plans to have concert series quarterly, with another one in the fall, with some contemporary pop. “We’re looking to build a community, not just a business,” Kozlowski said recently. The concerts are designed to offer a wide variety of music.

The jazz concert was the 10th concert in the new location (since opening last August), and they also do student recitals.

“I need to make sure everything we approach, we do it fully committed and correctly, and not just jumping at everything,” Kozlowski said. “We’re trying to enrich the ability of what the music community can offer.”

They have a seating capacity of 150. He’s hoping to purchase the building and create a 400-seat concert venue on the second floor, with condominiums on the top floor.

“We are actively looking for investors and benefactors,” Kozlowski said, noting they’re hoping to have a donor name the new venue. “Rock Island needs this venue. I’m not building it because I need it for me and my business, for profits. We need it for Rock Island; we don’t have a big venue”

Centennial Hall at Augustana is too big for the kind of concerts he’d like to bring, and he wants the concert venue to be downtown.

Polyrhythms had its longtime home at Redstone Room at Common Chord in downtown Davenport, and moved to Rivermont Collegiate’s Becherer Hall. Sound Conservatory initially moved their Steinway to Rivermont in Bettendorf.

Scenes from the Laurence Hobgood Trio concert May 28, 2023.

The first Polyrhythms concert in Rock Island was a holiday show last December and a Third Sunday Jazz this past April 16. Kozlowski ideally would love to have Third Sunday Jazz move permanently.

“We’re trying to grow,” said Polyrhythms director Nate Lawrence, noting it’s important to have jazz concerts on the Illinois side of the QC (which used to have a jazz club, Sessions, on Rock Island’s 2nd Avenue downtown). They’re not planning on leaving Rivermont.

“This is a great place to do it,” Lawrence said of Sound Conservatory. As a school, it also shares the Polyrhythms dedication to education. “We have the same mission.”

May 28th was the seventh time that Hobgood played in the QC, including 2018.

“Every time I come to the Quad Cities, it’s special and it’s great to be here again,” the pianist said before the last concert.

Sound Conservatory started live music at its first location in downtown Rock Island with benefits for student scholarships, but doesn’t have those anymore.

Scenes from the Laurence Hobgood Trio concert May 28, 2023.

Making home in Rock Island

A 38-year-old native of Gdansk, Poland, Kozlowski and his family came to the U.S. in 1992.

At the age of 14, he began piano lessons with concert pianist Dwight Pelzter, but due to the teacher’s health complications the lessons ended after only 9 months. After a few months of self-teaching, Kozlowski took lessons with renowned pianist and composer Zaven Khatchadourian, with whom he continued his studies until his sudden death in 2003.

He went on to continue his studies at the C.W. Post campus of Long Island University in music education, and then at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City.

Kozlowski chose to move to Rock Island because of its rich history, and similarity to Long Island, N.Y., where he was from.

Kozlowski and his wife moved his father from Tucson, Ariz. (where they both lived in separate homes). He wanted to find a mid-sized, affordable metro area, with a historic house and thriving music scene. He fell in love with a 1910 house in Rock Island’s Broadway Historic District.

The piano in Kozlowski’s 1910 home in Broadway’s Historic District.

A former contractor, Kozlowski and his cousin did all the labor on remodeling the former 1,890-square-foot space for Sound Conservatory, which opened March 1, 2022 at 2235 3rd Ave., Rock Island, next to dphilms.

Kozlowski worked two months on the first renovations, completely remodeling the interior, including hickory-style vinyl plank flooring. Because of his love of history, and need for a bigger building, Kozlowski has leased and renovated the three-story building at 1600 2nd  Ave., mainly the ground floor so far, for Sound Conservatory.

The building is 37,000 square feet and owned by the YWCA – which is constructing a new 48,900-square-foot building at 1702-1794 5th Ave., Rock Island. The 2nd Avenue site (now leased with an option to buy) was used as an annex for storage and the Sound Conservatory is occupying a former gym, with maple hardwood floors.

Sound Conservatory has a wide variety of pianos and other instruments for sale.

Promoting concerts and pianos

The new Sound Conservatory Summer Concert Series began with a May 5 program with pianist Perry Mears, flutist Paul Mizzi, clarinetist Rob Miller and bassoonist Kian Hyatt.

Hyatt, Mizzi and Kozlowski performed the most recent concert (as PAK Trio) on Saturday, June 10. Upcoming concerts are:

  • July 1st, 6:30 p.m.: Multi Grammy-winning trumpeter John Daversa and acclaimed jazz pianist Tal Cohen.
  • July 22nd, 7:00 p.m.: Farewell concert from pianist Bill Campbell.
  • Aug. 20th, 6:30 p.m.: Pianist Andrzej Kozlowski – Chopin and His Life.

Kozlowski is a strong proponent of Mason & Hamlin pianos, even over the vaunted Steinway & Sons brand, which he says has declined in quality over the years.

“Older Steinways are way better,” he says. “Now, you’re better off buying a Yamaha, Kawai, obviously Mason & Hamlin, any of those brands. There’s plenty of better options nowadays, especially at their price point, which is ridiculous.”

Andrzej Kozlowski with a Mason & Hamlin piano at his Sound Conservatory studio.

Kozlowski first played a Mason & Hamlin when he was 19, at an outdoor music festival in Glen Cove, N.Y. He played on an instrument from around 1915 and fell in love with the touch and tone. “I said, one day, I will own one of these,” he recalled. Steinway’s branding is much better than Mason & Hamlin (some of its new pianos were selling for $200,000).

Kozlowski came across the one he owns now (in his home), after selling his 1981 Steinway, on Facebook Marketplace from Georgia. It was a nine-foot 1928 (fully rebuilt) and the dealer wanted to trade, giving Kozlowski $5,000 in cash. The Mason & Hamlin weighs twice as much as any other concert grand, at 1,700 pounds.

“It’s over-engineered,” he said, noting the rim around the piano is much thicker, a wraparound cast plate, a tension resonator system that squeezes the piano together. “They’re indestructible. It’s nearly impossible to find someone who wants to buy a piano like this and concert halls usually buy new concert grands.”

Many of Kozlowski’s customers want a perfect condition Steinway Model B. His showroom has a wide range of upright and grand pianos for sale.

The 6’3” Mason & Hamlin grand (made in 1909) which was in his Sound Conservatory studio (he just sold it) is 1,100 pounds, more than a Steinway nine-footer.

“Once you have a Mason & Hamlin seven-footer, which is more powerful than a nine-foot Steinway concert grand, in tone and everything – the Steinway is beautiful, but it wasn’t a Mason, in touch. The action was heavier, which I don’t like, and it didn’t have the ‘boom’ behind the tone.”

One of the important aspects of resonance, tone and sustaining the sound is the integrity of how the piano is built. The tension resonator maintains the curvature in the sound board, which is the biggest factor in how long a note lasts and resonates, he said.

“Over the years, the soundboard starts to lose its curvature,” Kozlowski said. “The way the piano is squeezed into itself, you’re not only getting resonance from the sound board, you’re getting sounds resonating through the rim and not reflecting off the rim.”

On a Mason & Hamlin, the sound rings forever and it takes longer for the tone to decay. “No one else has done it, because of their patent and it’s just crazy expensive too,” Kozlowski said. “Mason & Hamlin is not afraid to make an expensive piano.”

They advertised themselves as the best and the costliest, with the peak of the U.S. piano industry, from 1900-1930s. Using the same design and construction, Mason only makes 250 pianos a year. Steinway makes about 1,250 grand and uprights per year.

Sound Conservatory (the only Mason & Hamlin dealer in the Midwest) prides itself on quality and affordability, Kozlowski said.

Why build and repair?

Kozlowski is also a veteran piano repairer, rebuilder and tuner. When he was in New York, he worked with a piano technician, who had worked for Sohmer building pianos.

“As a pianist, I just wanted to know the ins and outs of a piano – how to care for my piano, to know if it’s sick or needs work,” Kozlowski said. “It wasn’t until we opened this business, I realized I’m gonna need to freshen my skills and start putting that knowledge to use.”

Sound Conservatory wasn’t intended to be a piano dealer and rebuilder, just a music school and store. He’s worked with QC expert Gene Taets.

They’re opening a new piano repair shop in back on the ground level, to work on a half-dozen grand pianos at once, including two Masons from the 1920s being restored.

Taets often works for customers at their home, Kozlowski said.

Kozlowski at his first location on March 1, 2022.

In addition to himself, Sound Conservatory has 11 other teachers. Kozlowski’s focused on growing interest in owning a piano and it doesn’t have to be new.

“Pianos aren’t like cars – once you put 50,000 miles on a car, it’s got 50,000 miles on it. With a piano, all the parts that wear down can be replaced at reasonable cost,” he said. “Many of these older instruments play and sound just incredible compared to new pianos, and for a fraction of the cost.”

Kozlowski wants to sell for less than anyone else, and is the only piano dealer in the Illinois QC. West Music merged with Griggs in Davenport and closed in Moline last September.

Sound Conservatory gets lots of inquiries to buy their old pianos, at wholesale price. “Our mission is, we’re not trying to make top dollar off the piano – we’re selling great pianos for an affordable price, to make the interest in the piano grow,” Kozlowski said.

“It’s not a cheap instrument,” he said, noting you can get a good guitar (which he also sells) for $250. Sound Conservatory offers financing for pianos, usually at 10% interest.

A view of the Centennial Bridge from planned third-floor condominiums in the Sound Conservatory building.

He’s starting a program in Rock Island schools this August (free for schools), in assemblies to showcase pop music from classical instruments. “You don’t have to play classical music by learning these band and orchestra instruments,” Kozlowski said.

The teachers do arrangements of “Someone Like You” (Adele) and “Cantina Band” and “Imperial March” (from “Star Wars”) and the Mario Bros. video game theme.

“It hopefully will incentivize them to get involved in band and orchestra, and get them involved in music,” Kozlowski said. Guitar teacher Tony Vogel also does an after-school program at Edison Junior High.

Three teachers in March did an “instrument petting zoo” at the Rock Island YWCA, where kids could touch and try out different instruments. “They absolutely loved it,” Kozlowski said, adding they did another one in late May.

“There is that stigma – I’m playing boring old music? That’s not true,” he said. “Look at Lizzo with the flute. She’s a great example – whether you like her music or not – of hey, what’s wrong with playing a classical instrument? You don’t have to play Bach or Mozart.”

A native of the same country (Poland) as Frederic Chopin (1810-1849), he loves the Romantic composer because, “He takes what you can’t express in words and puts it to sound. He emulated human emotion,” Kozlowski says. “He emulated it more purely and naturally than any other piano composer.”

The diversity of Chopin’s writing is extraordinary, he said, noting the 24 preludes (each one drastically different). “You listen to one piece and it’s not like any other piece,” Kozlowski said. “Each one has something completely new to offer. That’s why I can’t get bored of them.”

In August, he will play a mix – a mazurka, polonaise, nocturne, etude, ballade and scherzo. He’ll explain the structure of the pieces and how they transformed the piano world.

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