Keys to Excellence

Classic Arts Features   Keys to Excellence
Steinway & Sons and the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra continue their decades-long partnership.

Steinway & Sons and the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra‹two names in the musical world long associated with excellence‹began their relationship some 70 years ago. And while both organizations are justifiably proud of their rich histories, Steinway & Sons was already a thriving business when the Symphony began in 1880. This year Steinway & Sons celebrates its 150th anniversary, commemorating the milestone with a yearlong series of national and local events. Among these will be a three-concert series at Carnegie Hall in June celebrating three musical genres‹classical, jazz, and pop‹and a special 60-minute television program based on these concerts tentatively scheduled for broadcast in fall of 2003.

Not only have Steinway & Sons pianos been front and center on orchestra stages for more than a century, but the company's relationships with the SLSO and other orchestras have been very close. In St. Louis, the piano maker is represented by the Steinway Piano Gallery of St. Louis, which serves eastern Missouri and southern Illinois.

"The Steinway Piano Gallery of St. Louis has been the mainstay of our company's supportive spirit and relationship with the Saint Louis Symphony," says Henry Z. Steinway, the founder's great-grandson. This spring, as part of its sponsorship of the Symphony, the Steinway Gallery will make a new concert grand piano available to the Orchestra.

"The Saint Louis Symphony is one of the preeminent orchestras in the world," notes David Slan, president of the Steinway Gallery. "Our sponsorship recognizes its status as a local and regional gem that needs to be preserved and supported." Other St. Louis organizations using Steinway pianos include Washington, Webster, St. Louis, and Lindenwood universities along with the St. Louis Art Museum and the Community Music School.

When the time comes to select its piano, Symphony representatives will travel to the manufacturing plant in New York for a "test drive."

"Picking out a piano is a very interesting and unique process," says Susan Lim, the Symphony's director of operations, who will coordinate the selection. "Each piano has its own 'personality' and although the nuances in sound may not be apparent to the audience, musicians can hear and even feel differences from piano to piano. It is very important to select a piano that has the right sound and feel, or speed of action, to a soloist.

"Because it is a solo instrument," she continues, "a concert piano needs to have a brightness and presence that lets its sound be heard through the orchestra. To help with this selection, we will have a well-known pianist join us at the Steinway factory and try out different pianos. It is as simple as saying, 'We'll take this one,' when we feel we have found the piano that meets our criteria."

Behind every one of these pianos is an American success story.

In 1850, Henry Engelhard Steinway emigrated from Seesen, Germany, to New York. Three years later he founded Steinway & Sons in a loft on Manhattan's Varick Street. "My great-grandfather's decision to uproot his family and move to America was based on his view of the freedom and growth opportunities available here," says Henry Z. Steinway. "And he was successful almost immediately."

A master cabinetmaker, Henry Steinway had built his first piano in 1836 in the kitchen of his home in Germany. By the time he established Steinway & Sons in New York, he had built 482 pianos. Number 483, the first built by his new company, was sold to a New York family for $500.

Over the next 40 years, Henry and his sons developed the modern piano. In fact, within ten years of its founding, Steinway & Sons became the best known piano company in North America on the strength of its technical innovation and distinctive sound. "My great-grandfather constantly pursued excellence in music," explains Steinway. "The development and patent of a full-cast-iron plate in 1859 coupled with a new over-strung scale design allowed for enormous string tensions that yielded a bigger, more resonant sound. It soon established the firm as the leader in piano design and manufacture that it never has relinquished." It has been said that almost every other piano maker in the world has emulated many of Steinway's design innovations.

Steinway pianos are handcrafted from 12,000 components and require a year to make and assemble. Only 3,000 pianos are produced each year in the New York factory‹roughly the same production rate as a century ago. Another 2,000 pianos annually are produced at a factory in Hamburg, Germany.

"Steinway does not pay any artist to endorse the company's pianos," emphasizes great-grandson Henry. "But during the 2001-2002 season, 99 percent of piano soloists performing with major orchestras chose to play exclusively on a Steinway piano."

Recommended Reading: