For Lindenwood, Steinways are the key

By Sarah Bryan Miller

POST-DISPATCH CLASSICAL MUSIC CRITIC

Sunday, Oct. 05 2008

ST. CHARLES — In the world of pianos, one name towers above all others: Steinway & Sons.

Its logo — a golden lyre on a black background — is as familiar to musicians as the Nike swoosh is to jocks. Its quality is undeniable: Steinways are completely hand-crafted of hard-rock maple and quarter-sawn spruce. Nearly all the world’s concert pianists — everyone from Leif Ove Andsnes to Billy Joel, Mitsuko Uchida to Lang-Lang — play Steinways. So did most of “The Immortals” of the previous century, including Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Steinway, a company renowned as much for its marketing savvy as its craftsmanship, has learned to capitalize on that priceless cachet. And so, increasingly, have music schools.

In purchasing 28 new Steinways at a total cost of $567,170, Lindenwood University in St. Charles is the latest addition to the elite roster (only 90 worldwide) of all-Steinway schools. Lindenwood joins the ranks of Oberlin (since 1877), Yale (1897) and Juilliard (1924). Lindenwood also spent $80,000 on 25 Korg digital keyboards with workstations for a state-of-the-art piano lab.

Lindenwood students and faculty are thrilled. Freshman Whitney Bell, 18, a music education major, said she felt “overwhelmed” the first time she sat down at a Steinway, “but it was a good overwhelming.”

Playing a Steinway makes your performance better, Bell said. “It’s like the difference between wearing your favorite pair of tennis shoes and then trying on a first-class pair of Nike Shocks. It feels so right.”

The move to all-Steinways is part of the school’s plans to become a “first-class” university, able to compete for top-tier students and faculty — and to woo donors. Last month, Lindenwood opened its new $32 million performing arts center with sold-out performances by Liza Minnelli. It features a handsome 1,200-seat auditorium, a smaller “black box” theater with flexible seating, classrooms, rehearsal rooms and practice rooms.

When the performing arts center was still in the planning stages, the school did an inventory of its pianos. Many were more than 30 years old and needed to be replaced.

Although Steinway-made pianos cost about the same as instruments from less-prestigious manufacturers, such as Yamaha, they tend to hold or increase in value over time, said Joe Alsobrook, head of Lindenwood’s music department. In the lobby of the new arts building sits a newly restored “heritage” Steinway, built in 1902. Even at 106, it still sounds terrific, a testament to the brand’s enduring quality.

Assistant professor Pam Grooms is in her second year of teaching voice and piano at the school. Playing a Steinway, she said, is “like playing caviar.”

That translates to an even, rich sound. Grooms helped select Lindenwood’s Steinways on a trip to the factory in New York. In choosing the concert grand, she listened for a piano with “a big, full, meaty sound” that was still clear, “so it would ring with precision as well as fullness in the big hall.”

Alsobrook expects the investment to pay off in terms of the students they attract to the university.

“It’s a sign that this school is serious about music and the arts,” he said. He’s already noticed a marked increase in the number of students in the practice rooms.

Brian Ebbinghaus, 19, a sophomore music ed major, said that the first time he sat down at one of the new Steinway grands, “My jaw just dropped to the floor; the sound was so glorious. It’s like (an orchestra) in its nuances, but it’s a piano.”

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