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How Will Kawai’s Hand-Built Grand Play Against Steinway?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Like stately ocean liners about to set sail, the grand pianos roll down an assembly line of craftsmen, black, elegant and silent. The instruments, a marriage of ancient wood and high-tech engineering, have a mission: Prove that Japan can make a world-class, luxury piano fine enough to challenge the gold standard of the music industry--the Steinway grand piano.

It is an audacious gambit for their maker, the Kawai Musical Instrument Manufacturing Co. Kawai has been building pianos for 72 years and boasts $870 million in total annual sales in 81 countries. But it has always been Japan’s No. 2 piano company, mass-producing affordable family pianos in the shadow of its neighbor, Yamaha Corp.

Kawai’s new pianos aim to change all that. Much as Toyota Corp. tried to dump its reliable-but-dull image by introducing the Lexus as a luxury car to equal the Mercedes-Benz but at a lower price, Kawai hopes that acclaim for its new Shigeru Kawai grand pianos will boost the value of the company’s brand worldwide. The Shigeru Kawai pianos are produced like lithographs, in limited, numbered editions. Only about 80 have been sold in the United States since they hit the market in June. Quantities are limited because the soundboards inside are made of rare 200-year-old Ezo spruce trees from the northern island of Hokkaido. The soundboards are aged for five years, compared with one year of aging for an ordinary piano soundboard.

North American dealers have so far been shipped only 300 of the craftsman-built pianos. Prices range from $38,390 for a baby grand to $64,790 for a semi-concert model, said Brian Chung, general manager of Kawai’s Los Angeles-based U.S. subsidiary.

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Like the Lexus, the Shigeru Kawai piano is sold only through a special network of upscale dealers. The price includes a promise that a special technician will fly from Hamamatsu in central Japan to the buyer’s home--anywhere in the United States or Canada--within one year and adjust the piano to perfection. “These people are piano doctors,” explained Muneo Ishida, general manager of piano manufacturing for Kawai. “If you don’t go to a real doctor, you might get a quack treatment.”

Kawai’s quest to produce a designer piano is driven in part by raw emotion. Before starting his own company, founder Koichi Kawai was a piano designer for Yamaha in Hamamatsu, a town famous for its delicious eel and for the dry, even climate that makes it a good place to manufacture musical instruments. The company’s second-generation chairman, 78-year-old Shigeru Kawai, started out making radio cabinets and other furniture for U.S. occupation forces after his father’s piano factory burned during World War II. But he says his dream has been to produce the world’s best piano, fine enough to put his own name on it.

Trying to scale the top end of the piano market is also a strategy of necessity. Like many Japanese manufacturers, Kawai faces high production costs, and a weak economy means many domestic buyers are happy to snap up used pianos that formerly would have been exported to developing Asia. Abroad, the firm faces competition from cheaper piano and keyboard makers in South Korea and China, as well as from the better-known Yamaha.

Survival depends on producing high quality at a reasonable price. But in the subjective world of pianos, image is almost as important as sound. To promote its brand--and support a new generation of American pianists--Kawai has pledged to donate $1 million worth of musical instruments to U.S. schools over the next several years.

Millikan Middle School in Sherman Oaks is scheduled to receive a baby grand, a digital piano and three keyboards today. They are badly needed, said Sarah Kang, who chairs the school’s music department and says her own classroom’s piano is falling apart. “We’re always strugglin1730946855oney it takes to buy a baby grand piano,” Kang said. “I’m just trying to buy a saxophone or two. It’s a tremendous gift, and we’re very, very grateful.”

In addition to making friends at music schools with its lower-end pianos, Kawai is trying to reach out to the professional musicians, music teachers and critics on whom its reputation depends. According to Chung, American buyers fall into two major categories: musicians who appreciate the quality of the Shigeru Kawai and luxury piano buyers who are looking for something rare.

Glenn Treibitz, whose family owns the three Piano Factory stores in the Los Angeles area, carries the Shigeru Kawai together with the finest German pianos. So far, he has sold five. A Juilliard-trained pianist and composer, Treibitz insists that the Shigeru Kawai grand costs about $5,000 less than comparable pianos from Steinway & Sons, but sounds superior.

“The Shigeru Kawai is so much better it’s not even funny,” Treibitz said. “I wish I could put Steinways in my showroom next to the Shigeru Kawai, so people could understand.” Most people who can afford it buy Steinways “because they want a trophy in their living room,” said Treibitz, who says the first piano he bought was also a Steinway. “How many better brand names are there in the world than Steinway and Tiffany? It’s a magical name, and for those who don’t know, that’s what they buy.”

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Treibitz and other fans concede that it may be a long time before Steinway is knocked off its pedestal--if ever. The vast majority of American concert pianists have always played the Steinway.

“They’ve got a tough row to hoe,” one prominent California concert pianist and conductor said, asking not to be named. “If you called 100 concert pianists and said, ‘Would you play a Kawai concert piano?’ most of them would laugh. . . . I have rarely even seen a Kawai concert grand, and the pianos they make for mass use are mostly mediocre.”

Kawai is well aware of this reputation and is aiming to change it. The Kawai factory in Hamamatsu is already turning out the “Boston” line of grand pianos under the Steinway name. While it has produced three Shigeru Kawai brand prototype concert pianos, specially built with Ezo soundboards aged for 20 years, Chairman Kawai said that version will not make its debut until top artists deem it worthy of performance. “We’re not planning to sell it yet,” Kawai said. “I want the world’s top experts to evaluate it.”

In the meantime, Kawai wants to boost production of the hand-built Shigeru Kawai pianos to 100 a month, up from 40. The Hamamatsu plant turns out 1,100 of the ordinary Kawai grands per month. The Shigerus are assembled in a designated area away from the main factory floor, where the plant’s top workers fret over details. Under international law, ivory can no longer be exported, but politically correct acrylic keys offend the sensibilities of many pianists. The Shigeru’s ebonies and ivories are made from a new material forged of plastic, cellulose and acetic acid. “The feel is almost exactly like ivory, and it absorbs sweat,” said Ishida, who invented the material and patented it seven years ago.

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In another high-tech improvement, the keyboard cover has been made slam-proof. It sinks gently down over the keys even in case of earthquakes or attacks of human pique. “Fingers are a pianist’s life,” explained Ishida.

When each Shigeru is finished, it is rolled into a private soundproof room--with the piano technician’s nameplate mounted on the door--for the finishing touches. That means tuning, to adjust the pitch; voicing, to adjust the tone; and regulation, which means adjusting the weight, depth and feel of each key.

Ishida is a piano maker who does not call himself a pianist. But at the end of the assembly line, he sits down to test his work with a Chopin nocturne. The sound surfs atop the clean silence of the factory.

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Researcher Makiko Inoue in The Times’ Tokyo bureau contributed to this report.


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