Onstage : 10 Feet, 1 1/4 Inches

Beaming with pleasure, piano technician Richard Davenport looks up from preparing the world's longest piano for its L.A. debut at the Hollywood Bowl. Longer than the 9-foot Steinway, longer than the 9-foot-6 Bosendorfer, the 10-foot-2 Fazioli seems as confined in the large showroom at David L. Abell Fine Pianos, on Beverly Boulevard, as Moby Dick in a swimming pool.

Unique in the U.S.A. and one of just 20 in the world, the piano is beautifully made, with a graceful, rounded tail, bird's-eye veneer lining the case and exquisite fit and finish to parts ordinarily hidden.

"The whole piano's elegant," says Davenport, an energetic man known for his highly customized piano rebuilding, and he is speaking of more than mere appearance. Noting that in all pianos the lowest string always suffers in tone quality, he shows me how the Fazioli (Fahtz-YOH-lee) has an extra string with no key or hammer to play it. Its only purpose is to be sacrificed so that the tone of its neighbor, the lowest playable string, will not suffer.

Sitting down at the keyboard, I try the piano on pieces in a wide range of styles (from delicate Scarlatti to explosive Prokofiev). I remark to Davenport that where most pianos aim for uniform sound quality, this giant seems a little like a chorus. Sections of the keyboard have subtly distinct characters reminiscent of soprano, alto, tenor and bass, known as SATB. Davenport beams, "SATB is intentional!" With the deep bass sounding like a gigantic guitar, one thinks fantastically of playing an Italian serenade for one's beloved, but the image of the 1550-pound behemoth rolling up beneath her window is difficult to sustain.

Just as a wine may be a personal statement of the winemaker, this piano reflects the style of Paolo Fazioli, who has a music degree from Conservatory Rossini and an engineering degree from Rome University. His piano seems intense, distinct, explicit and lucid, and it demands these virtues of the pianist. When the piano is new, the Fazioli sound is attention-getting, authoritative, formidable and rather "hard," though capable of silken effects: the equivalent perhaps of certain California Cabernets, rather than a worldly and graceful Bordeaux. To judge the instrument properly, it should be heard when it's fully matured and its hammers are thoroughly broken-in--and in a great concert hall. The Fazioli demands such a setting.

The White House has a Steinway in a custom 11-foot case, but the piano inside is the 9-foot model "D" concert grand. In terms of functioning piano mechanism, this Fazioli model F-308 is the longest in the world. (F-308 designates the length in centimeters. This translates to 10 feet, 1 1/4 inches; but in the world of pianos, fractions are rounded up.) The longest piano is produced by perhaps the smallest piano company. While Austrian Bosendorfer makes a few hundred pianos a year, American Steinway a few thousand, and Japanese Yamaha a couple hundred thousand, Italian Fazioli has made only 600 pianos in its 16-year history, or under 40 a year. Surprisingly, at $146,700, the F-308 it is not the most expensive piano in Los Angeles; for the 9-foot-6 Bosendorfer "Imperial" costs $164,000 (and the 9-foot Steinway "D" just $79,100).

While I am trying the F-308, someone at another piano in the back of the store starts to echo the pieces I'm playing, but adding hilarious wrong notes. By chance, my friend Lincoln Mayorga, sometimes called "The Missing Linc" for his ability to cross over from classical to popular styles, is in the store. Laughing, he joins me atthe Fazioli and, of course, wants to try it himself. He sits down where Benny Green and Junior Mance will sit when they play the giant a few nights later at the Hollywood Bowl, and plays a few bars of Chopin. He asks "This an Italian-made piano?" and then exclaims ebulliently, "It sings like Caruso!"

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