A Piano Is Born, Needing Practice
By JAMES BARRON
© New York Times
Published: April 2, 2004


Over 10 months, it had been shaped, spray-painted, polished, worked on, tuned and worked on some more. In three minutes on its last day at the Steinway & Sons factory in Queens, grand piano No. K0862 got a new identity.

It became No. 565700 when a worker named Davendra Viran stenciled that number onto its cast-iron plate, a few inches above the keyboard, the 565,700th Steinway ever made.

A couple hours later, after bouncing over the Queensboro Bridge in a truck, it got another new identity.

Steinway had chosen No. 565700 to be one of the 300 or so grands in its concert fleet, a bank of pianos the company lends out for concerts, recitals, recording sessions and television programs. Steinway assigns those pianos yet another number, beginning with the letter C, for concert.

So No. 565700 became CD-60 - the D stands for the model - after it was dropped off at Steinway's store in Manhattan. Not in the first-floor showroom, with the wide window looking out on West 57th Street, but in the basement.

Among pianists, the Steinway basement is a storied destination, one that confers status. There, beneath fluorescent lights that hum and steam pipes that hiss, is what may be Steinway's most important asset, a roomful of long black pianos (except for the long white one that went to Billy Joel for a recording project some years ago). Their almost identical looks belie the basement's importance: every one of the pianos there is different. And everyone from Moriz Rosenthal -one of the last pupils of Liszt - to Glenn Gould to Mitsuko Uchida to Alfred Brendel has gone there to pick the perfect one to play.

Leonard Bernstein, who played Baldwins and Bosendorfers at concerts, sneaked in to choose a Steinway for recordings, or so Steinway officials say. Sergei Rachmaninoff was introduced to Vladimir Horowitz there in the 1920's. In the 1950's, Gary Graffman catnapped there while Leon Fleisher practiced on their favorite piano, and vice versa. In the 1980's, Rosalyn Tureck slipped and fell there, and sued. Steinway has not varnished the floor since.

These days, the basement is the domain of Ronald F. Coners, Steinway's chief concert technician. Horowitz once walked through the dungeonlike door and asked, "Where's the big one?" - meaning Mr. Coners, who is 6 feet 3 inches tall. "Most people think I'm the piano mover," he said. But not superstars like Daniel Barenboim and Mr. Brendel, who want him in the wings wherever they play. Other pianists have been known to send his bosses angry letters when he could not find the time for them.

Mr. Coners's assessment of CD-60 answered the question that had been hanging over it. It is the question that hangs over every new Steinway. The how-good-is-it question.

"It's raw," he said after playing a scale and a few chords. The treble was "a little too bright," meaning that some of the high notes sounded glassy.

Everyone in the piano business, from workers at the factory to concert pianists to tuners, says that every Steinway is different from every other Steinway, and that each has a unique sound. Some are modest, some monumental. And some, like CD-60, have potential but need time to develop.

Unlike brand-new pianos that are sold as soon as Mr. Viran rubs on the serial number, though, concert division pianos get help in the basement. Marvin Hamlisch calls the instruments in the concert division "couture pianos," because they can be custom tailored to fit a pianist's personality - and if one cannot be brightened up or toned down enough to please a particular pianist, the basement always has other pianos to try out.

Mr. Coners redid some things that had been done on CD-60, more than once, at the factory.

"Some of this is because it's new," he said.

But even as he spent part of an afternoon realigning hammers and respacing strings, he said CD-60 was proof that the factory is turning out better pianos than it once did.

"Twenty-five years ago, the action - everything felt heavy," he said. "We had a lot of tonal problems."

That is an understatement. In the 1970's and 1980's, some pianists complained that the magic had gone out of Steinway's concert grands. Some worried that the company's standards were slipping.


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