About neuroscience and music (mainly classical). Exploring the relationship of music and the brain based on experience of two careers.

September 17, 2013

Steinway v. Baldwin

It happens often. At the reception after a concert the pianist, quietly, confidentially, and as if the words were about to come as a revelation, says to me, "You ought to get a Steinway."

Yeah. Right!

Our Baldwin concert grand is at least 30 years old and has been the butt of harsh comments from dozens of pianists, especially when we get behind in maintenance. And that can be a challenge out here in the Gretna jungle. But we never fail to tune and tweak it right before a concert, even if there is only one short piano work on the program.

One problem is illustrated by what happens to a harpsichord, an all-wooden instrument lacking the iron frame of the modern piano. A few years ago we tried to keep it stable in a climate-controlled room until just minutes before a concert, then swiftly rushed it to the outdoor hall (in Dave's pickup), tuning it minutes before curtain time. To our horror, as it soaked up the humidity during the 2-hour performance, its pitch went up almost a half step and several keys refused to budge. (We were lucky that singers can transpose!) Now we move it into the Playhouse days ahead and allow it to soak all the dampness it can hold. Then we tune.

I can think of better ways that $125,000 could improve our music than by replacing a Baldwin with a Steinway, but that's a non-issue anyway because we will never face that luxurious choice. And we do have a brand new Steinway in Leffler Hall at Elizabethtown College that we use for our Monsters of the Steinway" series, resuming with Gilles Vonsattel on March 15.

In early years we rented pianos from a local piano dealer. Inexplicably on the second floor of a 19th C. building and overseen by an ancient and irascible proprietor, I thought the place must have branched off from the Wieck Piano Fabrik in Leipzig, but the pianos had mostly Japanese names. Legs punctured the rotting floors of the old Playhouse and felt came unglued from hammers at the most inopportune times. Then in 1982 we rented a majestic Baldwin from York because our schedule included Dave Brubeck at the beginning, Marian McPartland in the middle, and George Shearing at the end. I, and they, were quite happy with the instrument and the cost to buy it was only slightly more than a small BMW.

That was when the late great gastroenterologist Bob Dye served on our board. I can't even begin to imagine the conversation he had with one of his musically-inclined patients lying supine on his examining table, but the piano became ours. The Big Baldwin has served with distinction and has proud scars to prove it.

You may have noticed that pianos (now we must call them 'acoustic pianos') have lost more value than a 1959 Plymouth (or books and records). Most without a Steinway decal (OK, and maybe a few others like Bösendorfer and Fazioli) are worth roughly their weight in cement. Everyone is holding their breath to await the fate of Steinway, recently purchased by Steve Case, founder of Amazon. Well they should, in view of the story of how Baldwin left the stage. I read a version of the story by Richard Conniff in the current (Sept/Oct) Yale Alumni Magazine.
"Baldwin was a piano company that had transformed itself, by a series of acquisitions, into an insurance giant and Wall Street darling. When it announced its latest acquisition in the summer of 1982, Jim Chanos [Yale professor and investment analyst, subject of the article] got the job of figuring out if the proposed deal would be good [for his clients, i.e., investment titans]. 'And I started looking at this mess of a company and couldn't figure out how they were making money and what their disclosure forms were saying….'" 
 "Then one night…his phone rang…. [An anonymous caller] proceeded to point Chanos to public files of correspondence between Baldwin and state insurance regulators in Arkansas. Those files turned out to be a beginner's guide to financial shenanigans. The regulators had belatedly discovered, among other things, that Baldwin was improperly using insurance reserves to finance its acquisitions."

Four months later Arkansas seized the assets of Baldwin-United and Chanos became a financial detective (notorious or celebrated, depending on your viewpoint) who later uncovered scores of other financial shenanigans including those of Enron, Tyco, Worldcom, and the subprime mortgage mess.

See Wikipedia for a more comprehensive version of the Baldwin story, but the company, now a subsidiary of the Gibson Guitar Company, makes pianos, mostly uprights I suppose, in China (a country, according to Chanos, "on an economic treadmill to hell.")

I think I appreciate our old Baldwin even more. Now it's in hibernation until next summer. It's old but has low mileage. 

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