Piano Versus Piano

An interesting article written by Michael Z. Wise in 2004 for the New York Times discusses pianists’ affiliation with the major piano companies.

The New York Times

By Michael Z. Wise

Published: May 9, 2004

Thas been more than three decades since Steinway & Sons punished Garrick Ohlsson for endorsing a rival piano maker in an interview with The New York Times. “It was enormously vindictive,” Mr. Ohlsson said recently about the aftermath of his comment, on the eve of a 1972 Alice Tully Hall concert, that Bösendorfer was “the Rolls-Royce of pianos.”

Steinway swiftly retaliated by trucking away the concert grand Mr. Ohlsson was about to play. Mr. Ohlsson ended up performing on a Bösendorfer borrowed at the 11th hour, but Steinway barred him from using its instruments for some time. He has long since made his peace with Steinway, and he now says diplomatically, “An artist’s job is not to endorse a piano but to play the best instrument available.”

Yet accusations of hard-knuckled dealing continue to circulate among titans of the keyboard as Bösendorfer and other manufacturers mount renewed challenges to Steinway’s overwhelming dominance of the high-end piano market. Bösendorfer — a 175-year-old Austrian firm whose instruments were played by Liszt, Brahms, Dvorak and Bernstein — has now opened its first New York showroom and begun pushing to get its pianos more widely heard, and seen, on American concert stages.

Bechstein — a venerable German maker whose 150th anniversary just coincided with Steinway’s — introduced a newly designed concert grand in January. A relative newcomer, Fazioli, is attracting a following among performers, some of whom are running afoul of Steinway in the process. Yamaha, a Japanese manufacturer whose piano is the official instrument of the Metropolitan Opera, is to open a new two-story service center in midtown Manhattan on May 18 catering to concert artists and orchestras. In addition, the American firm of Mason & Hamlin, which stopped making concert grands in 1984, plans to unveil a re-engineered instrument by the middle of next year.

Having watched Steinway, the top piano makers understand that concert grands can give invaluable credibility and cachet to their brands. “They are trying to emulate everything we do,” said Bruce Stevens, the president of Steinway. As Robert Winter, a music historian at U.C.L.A., wrote in The New York Review of Books last fall, “The predominance of Steinway in the 20th century is as much a product of brilliant marketing as of engineering innovation.”
Some see the marketing as going too far. The music critic Greg Sandow recently complained on ArtsJournal.com about “Steinway’s flagrant self-promotion” in plastering its name and logo in “slightly gaudy letters” on the sides of instruments onstage at Carnegie Hall. “This is gross,” he wrote. “The practice really ought to stop.”

Other manufacturers routinely use similar displays. According to Peter Goodrich, vice president for concert and artist activities at Steinway, the practice dates back to the mid-19th century and has waxed and waned ever since. It has been revived on a larger scale in the last decade, a sign of intensifying rivalries.

“There is much more competition now,” Vladimir Ashkenazy said from Zurich. “But Steinway is still beyond reach.”

Mr. Ashkenazy is among many celebrated artists Steinway uses to burnish its image. Other makers try to do the same, but Steinway is the master of this strategy, pioneered in the 19th century when it sponsored the American tours of Ignace Paderewski and Anton Rubinstein. By the 1920’s, Steinway was running ads proclaiming its piano the “instrument of the immortals,” a slogan still in use.

According to Steinway, some 1,300 performing concert pianists in the world, more than 90 percent, are now formally associated with the company, including Mr. Ashkenazy, Emanuel Ax, Murray Perahia and Mitsuko Uchida. They all own Steinways and are expected to perform exclusively on the company’s instruments. Affiliation as a Steinway artist ensures performers access to an array of instruments for recitals and recordings. Other manufacturers have their own chosen artists — Bösendorfer claims Andras Schiff, André Previn and Oscar Peterson; Yamaha, Elton John, Chick Corea and Norah Jones — but the scale is altogether different.

As in sports, the vying for celebrity endorsements starts early in the career cycle, when the most talented students are lured to play a particular maker’s piano in international contests. “In competitions, there is a real war,” said Jerome Lowenthal, who teaches at the Juilliard School and has judged the Van Cliburn and Tchaikovsky competitions. “All kinds of things go on.”

No other firm can match Steinway at providing concert-ready instruments for stages around the United States. “We are successful because of the instrument,” Mr. Stevens said, suggesting that Steinway artists, who receive no payment for their affiliation, feel the same. “It’s the finest piano made today.”

Mr. Lowenthal, a Steinway artist, concurs: “Steinway has always relied on making the best piano and assuming that pianists care deeply about quality.”

But the gloves come off when other makers talk about Steinway’s impressive artist roster. “They deprive pianists of their liberty,” Paolo Fazioli said from his factory near Venice. A number of Steinway artists have commented enthusiastically about Faziolis since they were developed in 1979. As Fazioli has gained prominence in recent years, Steinway has removed several stellar names from its list for disloyalty.

“They are sometimes abusing the liberty and weakness of the artists who are afraid of negative consequences,” Mr. Fazioli said. “They use these things to intimidate artists from playing other pianos.”

Angela Hewitt, a leading interpreter of Bach, was removed from the Steinway roster two years ago after she purchased and performed on a Fazioli, even though her recordings to that point had all been made on Steinways. “It’s a shame that it gets a bit dirty,” she said. “A lot of people don’t know there are wonderful alternatives out there. The Steinway is beautiful, but it doesn’t give you the subtlety or the finesse that you get from a Fazioli.”

Nikolai Demidenko, who was also dropped from the Steinway roster, asked, “Did anybody ever complain to Paganini that he used a Guarneri and not the Stradivari violin?”

Complain is just what Steinway did when another of its artists, Louis Lortie, performed on a Fazioli — to rave reviews — at Carnegie Hall last November. “I was shocked to see him playing the Fazioli,” said Mr. Goodrich, of Steinway. The firm gives leeway to artists when a Steinway is unavailable or when the one at hand is in poor condition. But this was certainly not the case at Carnegie Hall. Mr. Lortie could have had his pick from a bank of superlative concert grands at Steinway’s flagship showroom, just across the street. “I don’t want anyone on our roster,” Mr. Goodrich said, “who doesn’t want to play the Steinway exclusively.”

Undeterred, Mr. Lortie has kept performing on Faziolis as well as Steinways (of which he owns three.) “I’m not exclusive to anyone,” he said. “Steinway can go from the sublime to the ridiculous. There is no brand in the world that can ensure perfection. If they show they are worried like this, then they are not so certain about their production.”

Mr. Lortie considered playing a Fazioli on April 29, when he made two appearances on a single evening, first as a substitute with the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall, then in recital at the Metropolitan Museum. He decided against it, he said, because it would have been “dangerous” to switch to the Italian instrument at the museum after playing on a Steinway at Lincoln Center. “With deepest gratitude,” read the card on flowers sent by Steinway at the end of that double bill.

“It was the biggest bouquet I’ve ever had in my life,” Mr. Lortie said, adding that he had every intention of continuing to play a Fazioli whenever he felt it best served his needs even if Steinway stopped paying him tribute. “They want to be the Microsoft of pianos.”

Other Steinway artists who have performed on Faziolis in recent months include Mr. Ashkenazy, Herbie Hancock and Piers Lane.

“They are like a woman who is very jealous of another beautiful woman,” Yaara Tal, a Munich-based pianist, said of Steinway’s attitude toward other leading pianos. Ms. Tal recorded works by Schubert on a Fazioli before she joined Steinway’s ensemble roster with her duo partner, Andreas Groethuysen, in 1997, and she still performs on Faziolis periodically.

“I’m sure that Steinway is the best instrument until now,” she said. “But I would be a very bad artist if I were not looking for an instrument with which I can realize my musical fantasy. Always in life you have temptation, and you’re curious.”

Glenn Gould once jilted Steinway for Yamaha. André Watts, Claudio Arrau and Dave Brubeck jumped ship for Baldwin. But Baldwin filed for bankruptcy in 2001 and now operates on a far smaller scale. Steinway consolidated its position by quickly taking over Baldwin’s agreements to supply the Chicago Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Boston Symphony. Now, one might think the company was in a position to ignore its competition. But Mr. Goodrich acknowledged that Fazioli, which produces fewer than 100 pianos a year, compared with 4,000 by Steinway, “keeps us on our toes.”

While concert artists say they are pleased that competition drives up standards, some still feel that Steinway’s hegemony has left them with too little choice, since they believe that certain repertory sounds better on another instrument. “It is brainwashing,” said Andras Schiff of Steinway’s market strategy. He went on several European stages last winter playing both a Bösendorfer and a Steinway in the same concert, changing with the piece. He added, “It’s as if the car industry were such that everybody was obligated to drive a Mercedes.”

Valentina Lisitsa, a Ukrainian-born pianist who prefers Bösendorfers, said she had encountered roadblocks to playing one at some of her American concerts. “They created all kinds of difficulties,” Ms. Lisitsa said of the response to her insistence on playing a Bösendorfer with the Atlanta Symphony in October. “Steinway tried everything to get me to play Steinway, including some Steinway representative waiting for me in my dressing room right before the concert and asking me in not a very polite way why would I choose to play another piano.”

Steinway’s Southeast district sales manager, Victor Geiger, confirmed that he spoke to Ms. Lisitsa in Atlanta. “Whenever an artist is in the vicinity, I always introduce myself and ask whether we can do anything,” he said. “We believe an artist has the right to play the instrument that best suits their needs.” The administration of the Atlanta Symphony, which owns two Steinway recital instruments, denied that there was any difficulty.

Bösendorfer established a new foothold last June when it became the official piano of the Blue Note, the famous jazz club in Greenwich Village. A news release announcing the Blue Note’s decision included an endorsement from the pianist Billy Taylor, a Steinway artist who had played a Bösendorfer at the club.

“Steinway went ballistic,” said Steven Bensusan, the club’s owner, and another release was issued without Mr. Taylor’s name.

“I liked that particular piano,” Mr. Taylor said after the switch. “But I prefer the Steinway.”

In another bid for increased exposure among American musicians, Bösendorfer has placed a concert grand at the rehearsal studio of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, where, the company says, artists like Lang Lang and Peter Serkin have tried it out.

“It can’t be that everybody wants to hear music played always on the same piano,” said Bösendorfer’s United States representative, Gerhard Feldmann. “With older pianists it’s probably useless to get started, but we want to give younger pianists a choice.”

With Steinway posting a gross profit of $61 million on 2003 piano sales from both its New York and its Hamburg factories, the company looks secure against challengers.

“They’re nibbling around the edges of Steinway’s market,” said Larry Fine, the author of a leading guide to pianos. “But sales are still small, and I don’t see them as a serious threat to Steinway.”

Still, the prospect of greater instrumental diversity is welcomed by many. “What’s happening can only be good for music,” Mr. Lowenthal said.
James Palermo, the director of the Grant Park Music Festival in Chicago, agreed: “It’s a healthy thing that we can hear different pianos, and that everyone has a fair shake. The color palette you can get from different instruments makes the music more interesting in the end. We suffer from this generic quality now, where everything has to be done a certain way. As the French say, `Vive la difference!’ ”

Michael Wise is a contributing editor to Travel & Leisure and Architecture magazines. He plays a Bechstein upright.

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