The subject of today’s post is really special to me, and today I’m taking off my travel blogger hat to write as a classical pianist. On my latest trip to New York, I dedicated most of my few hours in Manhattan to visiting the flagship Steinway Hall on 57th street; barring any unforeseen trips to NYC by this time in 2014, I’ll never see it again, because it’s going to be gone soon.
For those of you in the classical music loop, feel free to skip the following block of text; for the rest of you, I’m going to do my best to catch you up on the significance of this place.
For the uninitiated: Steinway Hall, a crash course
1. About the company and its pianos
Steinway & Sons is regarded as the world’s finest manufacturer of pianos (fans of Bösendorfer and Bechstein may disagree). Steinway has been around since the mid-1800s, and their pianos, now produced in Hamburg and New York, are the gold standard for most of the world’s performing concert artists. Pianists and piano aficionados will talk your ear off about the differences between Hamburg Steinways and New York Steinways, but Steinway pianos in general are known for their rich, multilayered sound, quick and consistent action, and range of color, from the bright-but-not-shrill treble to a rumbly-yet-coherent bass. (Even though I practice on a Kawai for its heavier finger-training action, Steinway is definitely my piano of choice.) While other pianos (coughYamahacough) produce one-dimensional sound, Steinways sing.
2. About the hall(s)
William Steinway first built halls to show off (and sell) his family’s pianos, and they became performance venues as well as showrooms. The flagship Steinway Hall in New York, which is actually in its second location (it was originally on East 14th street), is across the street from Carnegie Hall, and it’s where Steinway Artists go to practice and pick out the grands that they’ll perform on in concert. (For an “insider” look at the piano-selecting and concertizing experience, check out Gary Graffman’s autobiography, I Really Should Be Practicing.) It has its own recording studio, and legends like Horowitz and Rachmaninoff have performed at Steinway Hall. The place is a historical and cultural landmark, and as you’ll see in the photos ahead, it’s a resplendent place, dripping with old-world glamour and elegance.
3. Why the current hall will be gone
Unfortunately, Steinway wasn’t immune to the economic recession, and earlier this year the company put itself up for sale. Theoretically this won’t affect the quality of the pianos (fingers crossed!) but one of the consequences is that Steinway Hall—this historical, beautiful place where you can walk in Rachmaninoff’s footsteps, where the most famous pianists in the world have selected their touring instruments—has been sold and will be turned into condominiums.
It’s a [bleep]ing crying shame.
They’re supposedly going to build a new hall/move into a different building, but obviously all that historical significance is going to be lost. And I doubt it’ll be across the street from Carnegie Hall. Steinway Hall will remain at West 57th into 2014, but it’s unliekly that it’ll be able to stay.
So when I went to New York last week, even though I’d be spending most of my time in Queens and Brooklyn, I made it a point to make my pilgrimage to Steinway Hall in Manhattan. It was a mixture of paying my respects to a place so important in my art, as well as sorrowfully experiencing the place as a tourist, because by the time I’m at the point in my career where I’ll get to be a concert artist picking my pianos and practicing in Steinway Hall (more fingers crossed), this one isn’t going to be around.
I took lots of photos. Here is a very small selection—if you’re interested in seeing more, I have an album of 90 photos (unedited) on Google Plus.
Steinway Hall in Photos
This is what you see when you walk in—a high-ceilinged rotunda with a painted ceiling and chandelier, with columns and arches and gilt.
In the middle of the rotunda is a gleaming concert grand, flanked by a Beatles-edition white grand in the window. Spaced around the room are people working at their desks, acting all blasé about the fact that they get to work in one of the most glam offices ever.
The hallway here is lined with displays showing off historical Steinway artifacts and documents. It’s pretty much a mini-museum.
The second floor, which has a recital hall and practice rooms, can be seen from the first floor via a balcony overlooking the main room.
One of the displays has examples of the manufacturing process. Here is a cross-section of a grand piano’s rim, composed of thin layers of wood carefully bent and glued together.
And here is a single action, the complex mechanical system controlled by a piano’s key. (Each of the 88 keys on a piano has its own action, which controls the way each hammer hits the strings, and returns the key to its original position faster than the speed of gravity.) The action is crucial to both the responsiveness of the keys to a pianist’s touch, as well as the player’s control over the tone and color of the sound produced. I love how the wooden part of the hammer is branded with the word “Steinway.”
I half-snuck into the basement, since I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be there or not. This is where the fleet of pianos is stored, and around the corner is where performing artists will try out and select their pianos.
And this is me practicing in one of the open practice rooms upstairs. Proof that I was there, and one of the only photos actually taken of me on this whole trip!
Not shown here are photos of the showcase rooms, the recital hall, or hallway displays—but that’s in the G+ album. This was, by far, one of the highlights of my trip to New York, and seeing 57th Ave.’s Steinway Hall was on my piano bucket list. It’s a shame it’s been sold, and that all the historical significance that makes it great will soon be gone, but as Bryce pointed out, there will be a new Steinway Hall, and maybe I’ll be part of its history.
And that is something to look forward to.