Behind the Scenes with Steinway & Sons
There’s much more to a handcrafted piano than meets the ear.
A piece of music—much like art—can be so overwhelmingly powerful that just its memory can have an impact for years.
When I first saw the “Pictures at an Exhibition” art case piano at the Steinway & Sons factory in Astoria, it instantly brought back memories of my final concert at Princeton, when I played Modest Mussorgsky’s composition Pictures at an Exhibition to a full house.
This $2.5 million Model D concert grand—considered the most expensive piano in the world—was hand-painted by world-renowned visual artist Paul Wyse and stands in the far-right hand corner of the Vault, a treasury of rare instruments at the Steinway factory in Astoria, Queens, that can only be accessed by fingerprint.
“Pictures” is the first Steinway piano inspired by a musical composition—in this case, Mussorgsky’s 1874 suite for piano—and dazzles like a Fabergé egg with a gilded lattice music stand, intricately carved “Baba Yaga” cuckoo clock legs, and the “Great Gate of Kiev” painted on the lid’s underside. I could hear different elements of the Russian composer’s masterpiece come to life just by looking at it.
A tremendous company with humble beginnings, Steinway & Sons started in a loft on Varick Street in Manhattan in 1853 and has grown to a global juggernaut. Musicians from Yuja Wang to Harry Connick Jr. and Diana Krall pride themselves on being Steinway artists.
The company’s first piano sold for only $500; today, the instruments start at $75,000. Between its two factories in Queens and Hamburg, Germany, Steinway employs 600 people, who produce a mere 2,500 pianos each year, each one meticulously crafted from the soundboard to the pedals. It also owns Boston and Essex, brands better known for their upright models.
“Demand worldwide is very strong, and it is growing in double digits, especially in China,” said Steinway CEO Ron Losby, who has been with the company for 30 years, and in his current position for four. In 2016, Steinway debuted the technologically advanced SPIRIO | r, a high-resolution piano that plays prerecorded performances (think Jenny Lin playing Philip Glass’s “Metamorphosis”) and both records and plays back whatever you tinkle into its ivories. It has quickly become the company’s best-selling category. “For two years we were playing catch-up, with demand outstripping production,” said Losby on the SPIRIO’s initial reception.
It’s not hard to see the appeal: As a composer and performer who has recorded three albums in a studio, I have always wanted a piano that was able to capture my notes and relay them back to me with digital precision—while at the same time, not compromising on the acoustic instrument itself. A home recording made with poor devices and muffled sounds just doesn’t cut it anymore.
Losby added that the SPIRIO captures every nuance of your playing: When you step back and listen to yourself, it is so instructive. “That’s why many conservatories and universities are excited about it, although the overwhelming majority of Steinway’s customers purchase the SPIRIO for home use,” he said.
Despite the technological advances, certain foundational elements go into each of the company’s pianos that are hard to imitate: The details and finish are what makes a Steinway a Steinway. Each hand-crafted instrument takes about a year to produce (limited editions take longer) and is considered an heirloom.
To fully appreciate what goes into making a Steinway, there is nothing like taking a behind-the-scenes tour of the factory in Astoria to see how the moving parts come together (tours must be booked in advance). The facility, which employs 250, is itself a dynamic work of art, like a Willy Wonka factory for music lovers. I was awestruck by how passionate the workers were to get every part right. One overalls-clad craftsman sifted through planks of Sitka spruce, hand-selecting samples resonant enough to produce a soundboard that both looks and sounds flawless. “The personality of a Steinway is imparted by the people, not a machine,” observed Losby.
Grand piano rims are just as difficult to make: several planks of wood are bent and glued together, and impeccably finished. A different set of workers polish and pack the finished piano. When you see the handcrafted details—the results of a virtuosic performance by these highly skilled workers—you really appreciate the true value of the instrument.
Want to go behind-the-scenes at the world’s most iconic piano factory—or even record your own virtuoso performance?
With Rosewood Limited Edition, you can.
The Carlyle, A Rosewood Hotel, and Steinway & Sons have come together to create two exclusive experiences for music lovers. Option one: Receive a private tour of the New York City factory, including a visit to the top-secret Steinway Vault for a viewing of the company’s most extraordinary pianos. Or, record your own track with Steinway Label Producer Jon Feidner, share it live in the 74-seat Steinway Hall, and bring home your very own SPIRIO | r. Both experiences culminate in a private performance at the legendary Café Carlyle.
The well-lit “Vault” housing limited-edition pianos is not typically part of the factory tour, but a lucky few are invited to see its treasures. In addition to the Pictures at an Exhibition piano, these include a white John Lennon “Imagine” Series grand piano, its soundboard imprinted with the opening bars of his most famous composition, and the dazzling Lang Lang Black Diamond, designed by Dakota Johnson in conjunction with the Chinese virtuoso. Each limited-edition piano sparkles with a unique finish and is replete with touches like decals drawn by the composers and performers. “In the case of the Lang Lang Black Diamond, the finish is metal appliqué,” said Losby, explaining why this piano has generated so much interest. “It has a unique shape of leg and is architecturally very different.”
“You really can hear the 167 years of design experience in this piano,” he added.