Party for a granddaddy grand

WHEN the doors open at Carnegie Hall in New York June 2, the featured attraction will be a single name - a name inextricably linked to America's musical life for 135 years. Steinway.

In the spotlight will be Steinway & Sons' 500,000th piano, a specially crafted nine-foot behemoth whose exotic ebony exterior bears the names of 900 ``Steinway artists'': Vladimir Horowitz, Van Cliburn, Claudio Arrau, Alicia de Larrocha....

Yet this milestone in Steinway's history stands in sharp relief to the high-tech age in which it occurs, making even clearer the great distance between Old World craftsmanship and mass production, between cherished musical practices and the fast lane of electronics, sampling, and push-button sound.

The 500,000th piano represents a productivity level that dollar-driven capitalists might sneer at. In a manufacturing world that typically turns out pianos by the pound with cookie-cutter precision, what are 500,000 pianos in 135 years? A source of pride to at least one man.

``We are the `papa' of the piano industry,'' asserts Henry Steinway, who worked for his great-grandfather Henry's company, headquartered in New York, 50 years before retiring eight years ago. The passing down of a great tradition through apprenticeship ``is the way I think piano building has to be done. It's a lot like diamond cutting; you have to understand what you're doing and have a certain skill in your hand.''

Ever since Steinway & Sons' rise to world prominence in the late 1800s, it has been identified with the American spirit, prosperous and ingenious. ``This is the true immigrants' company,'' says David Dubal, a piano faculty member at Juilliard School of Music and host of the Carnegie Hall celebration. ``When Henry Steinway came to America, [piano building] was all very new; a daring thing. But he was a piano genius and improved the piano instantaneously.''

While Steinway set the standard for the world, more than a hundred other companies provided healthy competition. The turn of the century years were truly golden for the piano. ``There was a time - a pre-1914 time - when no home could call itself cultured unless it had a piano,'' Mr. Steinway said in an interview at M.Steinert & Sons, a Boston dealer. ``No girl could consider herself educated unless she could play the piano!''

Steinway & Sons today exists in quite a different cultural and economic climate, one in which the company's reputation and management style have not gone unchallenged. The piano industry itself is undergoing enormous change, expanding in some directions, such as electronic instruments, while diminishing in others.

One undeniable fact, though, is that ``there are more pianos being sold worldwide than at any other time in history,'' says Jerome Rose, one of the 30 renowned pianists who will play at the Carnegie gala. He is excited that he'll be concertizing in Seoul soon, something he wouldn't have imagined years ago.

Lower-priced grand pianos from Korea and Japan - such as Kawai, Young Chang, Samick, Tokai, Hyundai - have flooded the US market, enabling more people to buy a grand piano for the first time. The number of grand pianos sold in the United States last year reached nearly 40,000, compared with between 12,000 and 14,000 about 10 years ago, says Brian Majeski, editor of Music Trades magazine.

``In 1986 we sold more Steinway pianos than we sold in [the rest of] this century,'' says Paul Murphy, a Boston Steinway dealer.

While Steinway occupies less than 5 percent of the grand piano market today, its piano reigns supreme on the professional scene, with more than 90 percent of concert artists who perform with major symphony orchestras using Steinways.

Ruth Laredo, who will also play at the Steinway celebration, says a Steinway piano ``is like a great Stradivarius violin. It's got the most expressive range of color.'' As a Steinway artist, she formally endorses the piano in her concert career. In noting the beauties of the instrument, she is careful to say ``a great Steinway,'' noting that not every one is the same. Judging an instrument is extremely subjective, she says.

Indeed, with a combination of woods - walnut, mahogany, pine, maple, spruce - and about 12,000 parts, there is potential for subtle variations in the instruments, each of which is two years in the making.

Larry Fine, a piano technician, calls himself ``a kind of listening post'' in his field, who ``sorts out the information'' that comes to him regarding different brands of pianos. For Steinway, he generally gets ``mixed reactions'' on the quality of the instrument, which has come into question among some in the piano community ever since the company's introduction of Teflon parts in the early '60s.

Reports of a ``piano war'' between Steinway and Yamaha have surfaced in the press. The Japanese giant has set up shop down the street from Steinway's 57th Street showroom in New York. Editor Majeski says the term ``war'' is an exaggeration; he sees ``no great cataclysm'' ahead for Steinway.

``If you go back to the turn of the century, there have been dozens of companies that have mounted huge attacks on Steinway,'' he says. Yamaha's campaign is ``the best thing that's happened in the piano business,'' says pianist Rose.

Thanks in great part to Yamaha, electronic instruments have made startling inroads into American musical life. About 4.8 million portable electric keyboards were sent to US dealers last year - compared with 175,000 pianos, according to an American Music Conference survey.

Steinway officials see electronic music as a potential boon to the music business as a whole. ``It means that more people are playing - which is good for both acoustic pianos and electronics,'' says Robert Birmingham, director of Steinway Musical Properties Inc., the company that owns Steinway & Sons.

``To me, electronics are wonderful,'' says Henry Steinway, ``and these new instruments are getting more remarkable every day.'' But he says the piano is a ``mechanical monster'' whose sound cannot be reproduced absolutely.

After years of family ownership, Steinway in 1972 was given over to CBS Inc., the publicly held media giant. This had an ``unsettling'' effect upon the business, says Steinway. The firing by CBS of four Steinway presidents in 10 years ``made for confusion'' and an atmosphere of ``great uncertainty,'' he says. Some officials wanted to move the factory out of New York, he says; others wanted to ``simplify'' the piano action. When CBS sold off the Yankees ball team, ``you could cut the gloom with a knife out on the factory floor,'' because the workers thought they were next.

Finally in December 1984, CBS announced it was going to sell its music division, of which Steinway & Sons was a part. And for the next 10 months, ``people tramped through the factory,'' which made the workers even more uneasy, he says. Finally, two brothers from Newton, Mass., sealed a deal with CBS. Together, John and Robert Birmingham founded Steinway Musical Properties.

Placing Steinway & Sons back in the hands of a private company was a major relief in the eyes of many, says Steinway. Since then, he believes the company is standing on firmer ground. ``We have restored faith in the quality of Steinway products, which was in question when we bought it,'' says Robert Birmingham.

``I'm really thrilled this happened, because these two fellows ... didn't want just a quick buck,'' says Steinway. ``They haven't decided to have the piano made in Japan or rip the factory apart or anything like that - they want to keep things pretty much as they are - and that makes me feel very good.''

What lies ahead for Steinway is an open question. For the professional, ``the piano will continue to be the hallmark of what solo performing is all about,'' says Mr. Rose. ``The fine Steinway piano has a soul ... capable of expressing the more transcendental needs of what an artist wishes to express.'' But amateur players are facing more distractions than ever, he adds, and ``the capacity to merely be alone and live within your own imagination is becoming less frequent.''

Henry Steinway, at least, is hopeful. ``My wife plays the piano in the typical way - she will play the piano an hour or so a day. She doesn't want me there, she wants to go in her room and shut the door.

``She likes to play Beethoven sonatas - skipping the hard parts - but that's my idea of a Steinway customer - the kind of person who should have a Steinway piano, and I think they're always going to be around.''

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