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How Will Kawai's Hand-Built Grand Play Against Steinway?

November 03, 2000|SONNI EFRON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HAMAMATSU, Japan — Like stately ocean liners about to set sail, the grand pianos roll down an assembly line of craftsmen, black, elegant and silent. The instruments, a marriage of ancient wood and high-tech engineering, have a mission: Prove that Japan can make a world-class, luxury piano fine enough to challenge the gold standard of the music industry--the Steinway grand piano.

It is an audacious gambit for their maker, the Kawai Musical Instrument Manufacturing Co. Kawai has been building pianos for 72 years and boasts $870 million in total annual sales in 81 countries. But it has always been Japan's No. 2 piano company, mass-producing affordable family pianos in the shadow of its neighbor, Yamaha Corp.

Kawai's new pianos aim to change all that. Much as Toyota Corp. tried to dump its reliable-but-dull image by introducing the Lexus as a luxury car to equal the Mercedes-Benz but at a lower price, Kawai hopes that acclaim for its new Shigeru Kawai grand pianos will boost the value of the company's brand worldwide. The Shigeru Kawai pianos are produced like lithographs, in limited, numbered editions. Only about 80 have been sold in the United States since they hit the market in June. Quantities are limited because the soundboards inside are made of rare 200-year-old Ezo spruce trees from the northern island of Hokkaido. The soundboards are aged for five years, compared with one year of aging for an ordinary piano soundboard.

North American dealers have so far been shipped only 300 of the craftsman-built pianos. Prices range from $38,390 for a baby grand to $64,790 for a semi-concert model, said Brian Chung, general manager of Kawai's Los Angeles-based U.S. subsidiary.

Like the Lexus, the Shigeru Kawai piano is sold only through a special network of upscale dealers. The price includes a promise that a special technician will fly from Hamamatsu in central Japan to the buyer's home--anywhere in the United States or Canada--within one year and adjust the piano to perfection. "These people are piano doctors," explained Muneo Ishida, general manager of piano manufacturing for Kawai. "If you don't go to a real doctor, you might get a quack treatment."

Kawai's quest to produce a designer piano is driven in part by raw emotion. Before starting his own company, founder Koichi Kawai was a piano designer for Yamaha in Hamamatsu, a town famous for its delicious eel and for the dry, even climate that makes it a good place to manufacture musical instruments. The company's second-generation chairman, 78-year-old Shigeru Kawai, started out making radio cabinets and other furniture for U.S. occupation forces after his father's piano factory burned during World War II. But he says his dream has been to produce the world's best piano, fine enough to put his own name on it.

Trying to scale the top end of the piano market is also a strategy of necessity. Like many Japanese manufacturers, Kawai faces high production costs, and a weak economy means many domestic buyers are happy to snap up used pianos that formerly would have been exported to developing Asia. Abroad, the firm faces competition from cheaper piano and keyboard makers in South Korea and China, as well as from the better-known Yamaha.

Survival depends on producing high quality at a reasonable price. But in the subjective world of pianos, image is almost as important as sound. To promote its brand--and support a new generation of American pianists--Kawai has pledged to donate $1 million worth of musical instruments to U.S. schools over the next several years.

Millikan Middle School in Sherman Oaks is scheduled to receive a baby grand, a digital piano and three keyboards today. They are badly needed, said Sarah Kang, who chairs the school's music department and says her own classroom's piano is falling apart. "We're always strugglin1730946855oney it takes to buy a baby grand piano," Kang said. "I'm just trying to buy a saxophone or two. It's a tremendous gift, and we're very, very grateful."

In addition to making friends at music schools with its lower-end pianos, Kawai is trying to reach out to the professional musicians, music teachers and critics on whom its reputation depends. According to Chung, American buyers fall into two major categories: musicians who appreciate the quality of the Shigeru Kawai and luxury piano buyers who are looking for something rare.

Glenn Treibitz, whose family owns the three Piano Factory stores in the Los Angeles area, carries the Shigeru Kawai together with the finest German pianos. So far, he has sold five. A Juilliard-trained pianist and composer, Treibitz insists that the Shigeru Kawai grand costs about $5,000 less than comparable pianos from Steinway & Sons, but sounds superior.

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