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Steinway rolls in

In this tough economy, it's notable that Steinway and Sons has chosen this particular time to open the Washington area's first exclusive Steinway dealership. The new Steinway Piano Gallery in the Tysons Corner Center, just opened, will be joined by a second branch in Falls Church in January. (Steinway prepared for this step this summer by cancelling its distribution through Jordan Kitt's Music stores, which had represented Steinway in the area for decades.)

I find it notable that Steinway has a near-monopoly on concert instruments in the world (a recent company press release claims that 98% of concert pianists play on Steinways). This is a shame, since it limits the audience's experience to the sounds of other instruments. "Steinway" and "piano" have come to be nearly synonymous in the minds of many concert-goers, despite the existence of Fazioli and Blüthner and Bösendorfer and numerous other worthy manufacturers, each with a distinctive approach to sound.

A Viennese piano restorer once cited to me the adage that Steinway makes pianos for the audience, while the Viennese piano manufacturers make them for the artist. I've certainly heard from a couple of artists that they preferred the sound of other pianos, but didn't feel they came across to audiences as well as a Steinway does. And I know some people -- in Vienna, at least -- who regard Steinway's hegemony as veritably immoral, and the sound of the instruments as unsubtle, even crass. I wouldn't go that far, but I do wish there were more of a chance, in one's regular concert life, to hear a wider variety of instruments.

I'd be curious to hear from other people about their experiences with Steinways, or with other makes of piano.

By Anne Midgette  |  October 22, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Washington , news , random musings  
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Just noting that anyone who wants an alternative can attend a concert at the Austrian Embassy, which proudly features a well-maintained Bosendorfer for all piano concerts.

Posted by: Lindemann777 | October 22, 2009 9:28 AM | Report abuse

At Christopher O'Reilly's recent performance at the Barns at Wolf Trap, they had a Yamaha on the stage. O'Reilly mentioned during the concert that he was usually a Steinway man, but said he was pleased with the sound of the Yamaha. I assume Yamaha is among the "other worthy manufacturers."

Posted by: tedloud | October 22, 2009 11:29 AM | Report abuse

I think the piano monoculture is truly unfortunate. Steinway has been a major driver of this since the middle of the 19th century, but even at the end of the 19th c., there was more diversity. The wood-frame piano (as opposed to those with iron frames) survived well past then. It is amazing to hear a variety of early and mid 19th century pianos; they had diverse actions and hammers and construction and made a fascinating range of sounds. Even if we had more brand diversity today we wouldn't approach that.

As for my personal experience with other instruments, Garrick Ohlsson used a Fazioli for the Beethoven 5th piano concerto at SF Symphony a few years back and I thought it a horror. It seemed loud and hard to control, though I note that Ohlsson did not play well at all the night I heard him. Joshua Kosman reviewed for the Chron and he agreed, as did the friend who came to the concert with me.

Posted by: LisaHirsch1 | October 22, 2009 4:00 PM | Report abuse

I'm posting this for someone who wasn't able to post here:

I would think that it depends on the repertoire. A Bosie would be great for Brahms, Liszt owned a Chickering (are they still around) and Yamaha seems to have the best wood for soundboards (they get it from Alaska)(insert Palin joke). But I think that it is shameful the way that Steinway is dumping their long time and supportive dealers for a network of "owned stores". That really is dirty pool.

Posted by Steve Wehmhoff

Posted by: MidgetteA | October 22, 2009 5:33 PM | Report abuse

Andrew -- Till Fellner, who had a Steinway brought to the Austrian Embassy for his Beethoven cycle concerts, told me after one of them that he thought they should chop that Bösendorfer up for firewood. That seems awfully harsh to me, having enjoyed many fine concerts played on that Bösendorfer, but it has been hard not to listen microscopically for its deficiencies ever since.

Another non-Steinway option in the area is the 19th-century Broadwood piano that gets played at the Strathmore Mansion now and again, including at Malcom Bilson's recital next month (November 19).

Posted by: Charles_D | October 22, 2009 5:58 PM | Report abuse

Louis Lortie played a Fazioli in his Chopin Etudes recital at the Kennedy Center this past May, and I'd be surprised if Angela Hewitt doesn't as well when she plays at Strathmore this December.

Posted by: ChuckStark | October 22, 2009 8:56 PM | Report abuse

the Yamaha @ The Barns was one of the best of their instruments i'd ever played: clear and colourful. i played a Fazioli when i last played with LACO (they're mostly a Yamaha band), and i thought, for CHopin f minor, it was a fine piano. i'd tried the Fazioli at David Abell's shop in LA with friend, Pablo Ziegler, back when we were rehearsing our two-piano Piazzolla concerts. Pablo's reservation regarding the Fazioli was one with which i concur: the touch is a little too light in the loafers; one doesn't feel like one is able to plant the touch deep in the key-bed. Boesendorfers have the more seductive touch of any piano, but the physics of the instrument, with its over-extended crown to the soundboard, make it a failure past ten rows in any concert hall. They sound good under the mics (my teacher, Russell Sherman, did his Beethoven Concerto recordings on a Boesendorfer, and he's as skeptical about them as i ever was), but the sound goes limp very quickly.

Posted by: cjoriley | October 23, 2009 4:08 PM | Report abuse

Played so many, but in addition to being a Steinway artist since 1985, I did play an Imperial Bosendorfer for a Seattle recital on the University of WA series--it had a rich and singing sound, and equally delicate when necessary. Perhaps Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit on that piano was a highlight of my entire performing career. Many times, the quality of any piano is the technician's achievements. If he/she has good parts to work with and knows how to voice the hammers to enhance the instrument, most instruments can sound actually quite special. Perhaps the best Yamaha I ever played was for a Carnegie Hall Liszt 1st Concerto, and, the best Steinway was actually he house Steinway in Tully Hall in 1986 for my NY debut recital. Best Baldwin was for the 1985 University of Maryland competition, and best Fazioli was at a competition in Oslo. We have a beautiful Kawai from the 1970s with ivory keys at our local library too!

Posted by: JBiegel | October 25, 2009 8:14 AM | Report abuse

I think you can't underestimate the role that Steinway's marketing plays in their industry dominance. They have an enormously successful PR machine and what's more, they have been known for punishing their artists who stray to other instruments. They famously went after Garrick Ohlsson for endorsing a Bösendorfer in a 1972 interview with The New York Times, taking his piano away on a truck just hours before a concert. Angela Hewitt was removed from the roster after she bought a Fazioli and there was another brush-up involving Louis Lortie a few years back.

I'm also curious if DC's concert presenters all use Steinways as NYC's do. NY is very much a Steinway town (Bösendorfer opened a showroom near Grand Central 5 or 6 years ago, only to see it close soon after). But as you say, Vienna and probably other European cities are not quite so dominated by one maker.

Posted by: bwise1 | October 25, 2009 12:20 PM | Report abuse

Another comment posted for someone who couldn't get on the site:

Even Steinway suffered a major setback in the late 1980's under the ownership of what was known then as Steinway Musical Properties. The USA Steinways produced during that era did not live up to their reputation for old-world craftsmanship, thus causing major artists to look elsewhere. Andre Watts, for example, played a Yamaha CFIII for years. Steinway has bounced back since then, but I'm sure plenty of other artists considered other options such as Bösendorfer, Bechstein, Bluethner, etc., as well. The Kawai EX is also a more than worthy contender - it's a shame that it is as underexposed as it is.

Posted by Ray Riska

Posted by: MidgetteA | October 27, 2009 3:05 PM | Report abuse

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