Thursday, May 5, 2011

Seventh Interview – A Day in New York's Piano Row

Steinway Hall on W. 57th St.  New York City

Our initial conversations on your return indicated that you'd had a good day at the piano stores you visited on Saturday, April 30th. Perhaps you'd like to introduce them briefly and please tell us what exactly is New York's “piano row”?
Well, first of all, the area I specifically refer to as “piano row” is situated along West 58th Street between 7th Avenue and Broadway. There are four piano stores on this block, all of them representing the first tier of great pianos available for sale in New York City.
But Steinway Hall isn't one of these stores, why not include it?
Without question, the American retail headquarters of Steinway, the flagship store in fact, should be included, though it is a short walk away on West 57th between 6th and 7th Avenues. All these places are a short walk from Carnegie Hall, in a manner of speaking, the “spiritual” focal point of the “classical” music world in New York.
But you don't ever go to Steinway Hall.
No, I haven't gone in there in years, but I want it clearly understood that it isn't that I don't approve of them. After all, the name Steinway is synonymous with the best pianos available in all the world and they are certainly still making them.
But you've become better acquainted with their competitors, many of whom offer Steinway pianos for sale. What's the difference?
Well, for one thing Steinway Hall certainly needs no advertisement from me. They'd like it just fine if I came in there, hopefully with a prize I'd won at some piano competition, and a nice bankroll ready to plunk it down on a nice new Steinway. American Steinway has been a leader in pianos and piano technology for over 150 years and I am pleased and proud to have recommended their products (even in some cases above their compatriots' products from Hamburg, Germany) and as I will take some pains to explain, my practically lifelong recommendation and confidence in Steinway pianos has very compelling reasons. For those interested, I encourage them to visit Steinway Hall and get the scoop on their great pianos directly from them.
So you weren't able to visit all four stores?
No, I originally intended to visit only two; Faust Harrison and Beethoven's.
But something happened.
Yes, I discovered that Allegro Pianos had taken Faust Harrison's store location and Faust Harrison had moved a few doors down. I visited these two and then finished up my piano tour at Beethoven's.
The fourth store?
It's Klavierhaus, which is also top tier. I just didn't have the time and really after you get to experience as much as I did, you really begin to experience a kind of weariness similar to what you get from spending too much time in an art museum. Your senses just get overwhelmed.
Sort of like what happens when you practice too long?
Similar, yes. (laughs) Or even listening to too much music. That keen edge gets dulled.

Allegro Pianos, Manhattan showrooms

So let's begin with Allegro Pianos. This was your first introductory visit wasn't it? What made you decide to go in and have a look inside?
The usual curiosity. I'd heard something about the owner from the Piano World Piano Forum, apparently a rather colourful figure, and knew he had some connection with Faust Harrison, but that he perhaps preferred dealing in other makes of pianos.
So you got to see and play several different makes of pianos.
Well, two in particular anyway. I was really more curious to know about Allegro Pianos' special focus and so I spent a lot of time discussing them with the company's Eric Johnson, himself a pianist with his own blog.
You told me Mr. Johnson served you the first cup of coffee you'd had in maybe two years? (laughs)
Something like that, yes. I just didn't have the heart to put the man through whatever difficulties might arise from asking for tea instead. (more laughs)
So was it a good cup of coffee?
Dr. Mark Malkovitch as I'd like to remember him
Oh yes, I enjoyed it very much. He offered me another, but I think I would have been dancing on the ceiling in no time had I accepted. Before I go on, I also want to mention something else Eric Johnson told me that I hadn't heard about before; the untimely death of Dr. Mark Malkovitch, who was practically the heart and soul of the Newport Music Festival in Rhode Island. I reacted to this terrible news about as if someone had socked me in the stomach. Through fortunate circumstances, extending over many years, I had been able to attend concerts at this festival and had met Dr. Malkovitch at several remarkable concerts there. It was at Newport that I heard Frederic Chiu perform the Chopin Mazurkas and Agustin Anievas play the Brahms Variations on a Theme by Handel and later his heroic concert in 2009 featuring Schumann's Fantasie Op. 17, after which concert he encouraged me to learn it also.
So Dr. Malkovitch's son is probably running the Newport Music Festival now.
Yes, but for how long I just don't know. He probably doesn't have the intense passion for it his father had. I was once again struck by how tiny the serious music world is (maybe a better term than “classical” music) and how the luminaries often know each other.
So Allegro Pianos' emphasis?
It would be brand new high end pianos which might be brands other than Steinway.
You played some of these and wanted to discuss them?
Yes. Let's just say I started my tour at the top, playing a Bösendorfer Imperial grand (Model 290). I'm fascinated by grand piano plate designs and this is a picture I took of the interior of this piano. Sometimes if I can get a good look at a plate's shape and design it will identify the piano to me without having to see the name on the fallboard.
You told me you really hadn't sat down and actually played a Bösendorfer for any length of time since college when someone on the faculty had one in his studio. Can you describe your reactions this time?
Well the first things I noticed were the diminished key dip and the clarity of tone, almost magical in that everything I played sounded far better than I had any right to believe myself capable of. Indeed this piano shows up every imperfection a pianist brings to it. I played through Mendelssohn's Songs Without Words Op. 19, numbers 1, 2 and 4 only, which went very well, and then switched to Beethoven's Andante Favori which seemed a breeze on this piano. Mr. Johnson complemented me that it seemed I had practised. Little did I know then just how perspicacious his remark was. If I had this piano to play every day, I am convinced I would soon tackle more difficult pieces and become a better pianist as the action was quick and responsive and the tone gave immediate feedback on what I was or was not doing. Something else occurred to me later as I put this experience in proper perspective; I was playing a “performance” piano rather than a “practice” piano, so that everything I would have had to learn and make part of how I played a certain piece of music, would already have been formed in me before coming to play it on this piano, which certainly belonged on the stage of some concert hall somewhere.
Or in someone's home as a “salon” piano.
That's a subject for a future conversation because it's the other side of the pianist's equation; if I decide to become a pianist, where will I decide to play, for which people, for what possible gain? Without an interested audience, there's little hope for any music whether it be “classical” or otherwise.
But there are people who would still like one of these big concert grand pianos for their own homes. What are the advantages?
It's like asking why would someone want the best of the best.  For one thing, pianos at this level are quite rare and rarity alone always confers greater value. They are status symbols or investments, like fine works of art. At the present time, a Bösendorfer piano is a product of the longest continuously owned and operated piano maker on earth. That honour used to belong to Ibach, but they closed their business a few years ago. Ibach pianos are still first tier pianos when you can find them.
These are pianos that rival Steinway in quality, but how are they different?
They tend to play and sound differently, but even when a few months back someone had posted tracks of five fine concert grand pianos on the Piano World Piano Forum, I was unable to properly identify the pianos. It may have been the recordings, I don't know.  It's a very personal and unique thing to try and express in words.
While at Allegro Pianos you also played a Steingraeber & Söhne concert grand?
Yes, I also took a picture of the inside of this piano. Notice how it differs from the inside of the Bösendorfer. I decided to try a Chopin Nocturne on it, Op. 15 #1, which turned out better than expected, and also Schumann's Romance in F Sharp Op. 28 #2 (I'd eventually like to play all three of these in sequence). This piece got Eric Johnson's attention: perhaps he might decide to learn it. It's certainly a good one to test how to bring out a melody, a duet really, that floats between a bass and treble accompaniment, to best effect. I guess I'd have to describe my Steingraeber experience as preferable to the Bösendorfer, but that's a pretty subjective assessment, and again I was playing on a piano that really belongs in a concert hall. Another thing struck me at this moment as well, just how much better all these pianos would sound after being played (and kept in prep by a competent tuner/technician) for a couple of years, as their hammer surfaces get compacted through regular use. I left Allegro Pianos quite happy that I could confidently recommend them to those looking for that 1% best of all the pianos out there for sale. Of course the same claim would be made for all the stores on this street, so Allegro Pianos have plenty of competition.
And of course one pays more for the best.
That goes without saying. Another way of looking at these pianos was by comparison with hand made (or small shop, limited quantity manufacturing) of famous race cars or those often called “grand touring” automobiles. Whereas my piano at home drives and sounds like some stripped down utility van or truck, these pianos were race cars. You can't play things on mine that would be attainable on any of these. Once you learn anything, you couldn't cover up any mistake; every missed note would glaringly remind you that you were in need of more practice. Performance pianos are often like performance cars and should be.
And Practice Pianos are different?
Yes they are, as I was soon to discover.

A “Master Class” at Faust Harrison's Manhattan showrooms

Faust Harrison is a company dedicated to helping people find the best pianos available. They specialize in Mason & Hamlin and Steinway but offer other Asian and European piano makers as well. They have done quite well and are expanding into Westchester and Long Island locations. As I stepped into their Manhattan store, I heard what one should expect to hear in any high end piano store; the sounds of great piano music played by aspiring pianists on excellent pianos, sort of what some of us might imagine pianist heaven to be like.
She was quite a talented young lady.
Yes, and Sara Faust was showing her around asking her to play something on various pianos, beginning with a couple Mason & Hamlin pianos. She was playing a Chopin ballade and the finale to Beethoven's 7th sonata (Op. 10 #3), a piece formerly played by a member of the Piano World Piano Forum who had recently passed away rather suddenly. I recalled his performance as I was hearing hers. What moving ironies there are in life!
Sara Faust was doing far more than showing a customer pianos. In this case she was concerned to get the attention of this young lady (who was accompanied by her mother all the way from central Pennsylvania) to the challenges and rigours of concert pianism. There are all sorts of people who for whatever reason need a piano, but of these there are relatively few committed pianists with any real talent. This young lady was clearly one of these. Sara asked her questions like “do you really want to be a pianist?” or “if you really want to become a pianist," etc. because the truth of it is that there are far fewer who can, and ultimately will become concert pianists, and that once one decides one is committed there will be ups and downs, moments when one would willingly give it all up, but where there are certainly plenty who would be there to pick up the mantle should you wish to drop it (unsaid: because for many of them it's their only way out of a life of grinding poverty, misery or obscurity), and for these aspiring pianists something else is required in terms of a piano. Sara Faust was acquainting this aspiring young lady with the facts of life concerning concert pianism, and should there be a piano upgrade for this young lady, just what that piano must be.
A Steinway piano?
Yes, a Steinway piano with the typically warmer sound than the crisp and clear Mason & Hamlin, that is more difficult to bring out because the action is weighted to be slightly heavier than many others. As the young lady played these Steinway pianos, Sara would occasionally stop her, have her repeat the phrase with a little more emphasis and to assess just what the pianist needs to know to learn how to control, contour and develop all those extra rich nuances that Steinway pianos are capable of. Sara pointed out something I never hear from anyone but which happens to be true; the bass end of a piano will always project, it is the upper registers that require extra attention. (Sara mentioned, attributed to Vladimir Horowitz, that we all play with our little fingers. All pianists should immediately recognize the importance of their right hand little finger, but also of their left hand little finger for those big bass leaps.) Sara had the young lady play many Steinway pianos and as I watched and listened, I was hearing all the incredibly subtle differences between these instruments, like distinguishing between fine wines, fine chocolates or fine teas. We were, as it were, getting a “master class” lesson, a very detailed, profound and for me timely piano lesson. There were but five of us there, Sara Faust, the young lady and her mother, myself and Mr. Sam Varon who would be managing Faust Harrison's new Long Island showrooms. Through Sara's demonstration, we were encouraged to think differently about pianos, to consider the merits of a “practice” piano as well as of a “performance” piano. The former are what one learns music on, all the way from identifying the notes and phrases to play, as well as getting through the “sculpting phase” where after perhaps 150 times through the same piece, one is able to play it as an inspired and incandescent masterpiece, to bring all it contains to an audience of other people, which is really the final goal of the art form itself. A good practice piano should make you more confident to play on any performance piano you come across as many will be in worse repair and tuning than yours at home, nevertheless a performance must go on. Maybe for the first time I realistically considered the merits of the smaller Steinway models as practice pianos; the O's, M's, L's and even S's, that are often neglected by those seeking their A's or killer B's.
So Sara Faust was trying to get the young lady to understand the merits of a piano that was perhaps a bit harder to play but which promised greater musical rewards?
From a concert pianist standpoint, yes. It was really quite wonderful actually, like getting an insightful look from an experienced insider.
You told me before that Sara Faust was herself a considerable talent.
Once she played a few passages in Debussy's L'isle Joyeuse to demonstrate a piano. Her confidence in that performance blew me away. She knows what she's talking about. Let's just say that I left Faust Harrison having certainly been given a terrific piano lesson, one I'll probably never forget and one likely to colour my perceptions of kinds of pianos for the foreseeable future.

Beethoven Pianos Manhattan store

Ah, so what's new at Beethoven's?
Well, you might ask. Of all the piano stores on New York's “piano row”, Beethoven's has always struck me as innovative to the point of doing things, whether the cost or effort justified them or not, just because certain things are so precious as cultural treasures or of such artistic importance that they just must be done. Sitting out front this time is a peerless Bechstein semi-concert grand piano (I think it was in the 7'4” range) in a fabulous art case. It's a magnificent musical instrument as well, which looks, sounds and plays as if brand new. It was at Beethoven's where many years ago now, I discovered what the new Estonia pianos were like, and I recommend them, though their representation has since passed to Allegro Pianos and Faust Harrison. It was here that I got to play a piano that took them ten years to rebuild, an American Steinway from 1873 with 85 keys, real ivory and stunning performance characteristics. 
Ah yes, 85 key grand pianos.
I want to make a few comments here about the 85 key grand pianos of this vintage when competently rebuilt. These would ordinarily be Steinway A's, but could be by others made around the same time. These pianos, with the three keys that are seldom used missing at the top of the keyboard, sell for considerably less than their 88 key counterparts and represent a good bargain for those who know they wont need them. I even heard from the staff at Beethoven's that some concert pianist had bought an 85 key piano and had them make the three extra fake keys as if to continue the keyboard so that the pianist wouldn't be visually confused. Knowing the quality of their cabinetry, I am sure they could make it look as if those fake (and of course not working) keys had always been there.
You'd say this was your favourite of all the performance pianos you played all day?
It certainly was. I played the Beethoven Sonata Pathétique, a little of it anyway, as well as some other things. It was as if I were playing a brand new Steinway piano with hardly any miles on it and recalled to me a similar piano at Faust Harrison a few years back that I also liked tremendously. They were different instruments but cousins, the one here a little brighter and less sweet sounding. But we are describing the differences in the finest pianos in terms similar to different vintages of the finest wines, the finest blends of tea from various estates, etc. It's difficult appraising masterpieces when you must compare them. I saw many masterpieces that day at Beethoven's.
Like this “brand new” ancient upright piano?
Here's innovation for you. They take an old vintage upright piano with a good art case, this one is a German make, but some they've had are American. They save the case and throw out the inside, repair and restore the cases to “as new” condition, then replace the piano inside with a new modern German upright piano and sell it all at an astoundingly reasonable price. The result is a masterpiece of both visual art and musical instrument. There are all kinds of people who want pianos for various reasons. Some care as much about what a piano looks like as how it performs. In this case one will get a very good practice piano in a wonderful old style case of the kind that can't be made any more.
You were interested in other things here too.
After Sara Faust's lesson, I realized that what I should really be looking for, for my own living room (and future studio), was a good practice piano, that wouldn't hold me back, but would encourage me to take on more difficult piano pieces as well as encouraging me to work harder to achieve the required balances and tone. I began to wonder about how some pianists I admire acquire their strength and recalled that I had the misfortune to grow up with a piano that had a light touch. I have always preferred pianos with a slightly heavier action, but nevertheless responsive.
You began to see pianos as either “practice” or “performance” instruments?
Yes, and what I needed to focus on was a practice piano. I was expecting a greater variety of makes on the main floor than usual. What was I seeing instead? I remember laughing to myself. Under the circumstances it really shouldn't have surprised me. Why was I asking myself why I hadn't seen things this way before?
They were all Steinway pianos.
Mostly, yes. I was going among them trying various things out to ascertain their tone. One I liked a lot, an M or L in a mahogany case. I even liked an S I played in an ebony polish, which I far prefer.
You like your pianos black?
For me, and it's probably related to how I see, a black piano reduces distractions. I also like my keys dull, not shiny, with a little extra grip to them.
Then you prefer genuine ivory?
I don't need it and probably wouldn't pay extra for it.
You dulled the keys on your own piano after you got its keys recovered.
A little steel wool was all it took.
At Beethoven's you wanted to take a serious look at a new contender in the piano world, Hailun pianos. What did you think?
If you think all those piano makers that aren't Steinway have given Steinway a run for their money over the years, you'd be right. Steinway was the first great piano maker to get it all together and by the 1860's they had defined the modern grand piano. All the others were either trying to catch up or trying to make theirs different enough to compete on its own terms, like Bösendorfer. Many just couldn't make it and folded. Weber and Knabe and so many others in America that were later folded into Aeolian American in order to survive weren't what Steinway had become. As close as they got, they were not a Steinway. Steinway has been careful to preserve its reputation as practically owning the concert pianist world. But starting with Yamaha, Steinway began to get some real competition. Now they'll have stiff competition from China that simply can't be ignored. The Hailun pianos sell for less than half what Steinways usually go for and out of the box have striking similarities in tone, touch and overall feel. Will they hold up? Will they develop their tone as their hammers get compacted through use? Will their action parts hold up? Who are their designers? You take a look at the plate design and whose does it most look like? Bösendorfer's. We understand that many of their staff come from the great house of Bösendorfer as well as some other European makers. This fall Hailun will release a newer series of pianos that will “blow away” what they have already produced.
You are going back down when they arrive?
Yes indeed, sometime early in November. (5/27/12  Nope, it wasn't to be.  I couldn't arrange transportation and other things came up as they often do.  This is certainly still a goal for a future trip to New York.)
So what will you do about getting a better piano for yourself?
It depends on many things. This conversation may inspire others to think ahead about what they are going to do, whether they will acquire a new practice or performance piano for themselves, what music to tackle and even where they may be five, ten, twenty years from now in their musical lives. Of course everything depends on costs for everything. There are never any guarantees. In human history, civilizations as we have known them are relatively rare, barbarism is more often the rule. Hence one begins to see another fundamental behind an interest in pianos, pianism, the so called “classical” music, certainly other music as well, certainly other art as well, the fine arts generally including everything that matters to make life bearable, comfortable, interesting and yes, worth living.
That's really what you are all about in a way isn't it?
It's what all the really great music was ever about, what the greatest of everything we have made is about; the very meaning of our lives.
Closing remarks?
You'll simply not go wrong dealing with the piano stores on New York's piano row. From all of them, you can expect the highest standards of integrity and honesty in this business, which has at times suffered from tactics similar to those of used car salesmen. People come from all over the country and around the world to find their pianos in New York and there are very good reasons for this. You simply wont often find this much of the top tier regularly displayed in one place. There is bound to be a preponderance of Steinway pianos as this is Steinway town. But as I said, there are reasons for this too. For many it will be not which piano they are seeking as which Steinway. Never fear, there are very many of them here, all just a little different from each other.
You said your next excursions are going to deal with the piano shops that supply these stores?
It will require a more extensive trip to locations outside New York City. I'd also really like going down to have a look at a piano store in Philadelphia. Those efforts will take more time and money than I can commit at this time.
Understood. Please keep us posted. Thank-you for sharing your experience, I'm sure many reading this looking for pianos will have a better idea of what to look for.


No comments:

Post a Comment