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Lifting the Lid on a New Piano : Music: Critics say Steinway's decision to make a mid-price piano in Japan signals the end of a tradition of craftsmanship.


ORANGE — When is a Steinway not a Steinway?

When it's made in Japan under the brand name Boston, as creators of the new line of mid-priced pianos emphatically point out.

But the name of New York City-based Steinway & Sons, makers of the best-known concert pianos since the mid-19th Century, looms large in the tangled lineage of the Boston, which was unveiled to a group of national Steinway dealers here Thursday.

The Boston Piano Co. is the newborn child of Steinway Musical Properties, parent company of Steinway & Sons.

Furthermore, the Boston was designed by engineers from Steinway & Sons, but unlike the meticulously hand-crafted Steinway, the Boston piano is being mass produced in Japan by Kawai.

Officials of Steinway Musical Properties based in Waltham, Mass., are handling their entry into the mid-range piano market gingerly, hoping they can accomplish the feat without taking any gloss off the prestigious Steinway & Sons name.

"We have had to overcome people's misconception of what is going on," said Robert Birmingham, co-owner of the company with his brother, John.

But some critics of Steinway say it is another blow to what is considered the Rolls-Royce of keyboards. The company, founded in 1853, has had two new owners in the past 20 years and--under its present general manager (an engineer from the nuclear industry)--instituted manufacturing and philosophical changes that are designed to move the company from the craftsman era into the engineering age.

Boston general manager Bob Dove says the new piano line (median price: about $10,000) will be sold by Steinway dealers and is designed to compete with the mid-priced pianos from the Far East flooding the market from such makers as Yamaha, Young Chang and, yes, Kawai. The Boston pianos will be the "best pianos available at that price," Dove said.

Meanwhile, Steinway pianos (price range: $10,300 to $62,000) will remain the best pianos "regardless of price," Dove insisted.

The Boston piano will be available in four grand-piano models ranging in length from 5 feet, 4 inches to 7 feet, 2 inches. Four vertical models range in height from 44 inches to 52 inches. The line will not include a concert grand.

Dealers who met at the Doubletree Hotel in Orange for the unveiling appeared ecstatic about the new line. Gathered for a National Assn. of Music Merchandisers convention in Anaheim, about 90 people heard that pilot dealers had sold three Boston pianos in December at full markup of 45%. In these recessionary times, expectations of increased foot traffic and sales were music to the dealers' ears.

Boston officials say the new line is the result of six years of research and development, and all components were either newly designed or "refined." The project is not a joint venture with Kawai, Dove stressed; Boston pianos are being built at Kawai's Japanese factory, but Boston retains "100% control" over the manufacturing process.

The Steinway family, which owned Steinway & Sons from its founding until selling it to CBS in 1972, long resisted proposals to introduce a mid-range piano. John and Robert Birmingham began formulating plans for the Boston not long after taking over Steinway & Sons in a $53.5-million leveraged buyout in 1985.

Taking charge of a musical legend has proven a sticky business at times. The fact that the brothers had no experience in building pianos or any musical instruments raised concerns in the musical community that were compounded when they fired the longtime head of manufacturing and replaced him with an engineer, Daniel Koenig, whose previous experience was with steam turbines. His talk of updating the manufacturing process that turned out about 5,000 instruments a year at plants in New York and Germany, was, for some, tantamount to blasphemy.

"Yes, there were people concerned," said Robert Birmingham. But, he says, the company has shown that skeptics had no basis for concern. "Today's Steinway is the best Steinway," he said. "There's nothing wrong with opening the doors and letting in a little fresh air once in a while."

Pianist Leonard Pennario swears by the Steinway: "Over the years, I have found their pianos the most consistent. I have observed no lowering of Steinway standards in any of the pianos I have played on, in this country and abroad. They are absolutely reliable."

One man, however, has attacked the company's rosy view with a vengeance.

Michael Yeager, owner of A. Michael's Piano in Waterford, Conn., was the No. 2 Steinway dealer in the country until mid-1989. Since then, he has been taking on Steinway & Sons in an intensifying battle.

The problem started not long after the Birminghams took over the company, when Yeager says he noted a sharp increase in the number of Steinways with cracked sounding boards, the wooden surface under the strings that gives the piano its resonance. Yeager says the number of cracked sounding boards mushroomed under the new ownership.

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