Steinway comes to town

Christopher Clark is the manager of the new Steinway showroom.

Professional musicians are picky. They won’t perform on just any oboe or harp or viola. They forge a fast bond with their first serious instrument, one that sometimes lasts a lifetime. They are particular about the tone it produces, and the way that tone is produced. They quickly grow accustomed to a certain feel in the fingers or at the lips, and they are not easily persuaded to make a change.

For piano players, these preferences are no less important, but they can be a little harder to secure. After all, pianos aren’t really portable, at least not without employing trained movers and paying large sums.

So pianists, unlike most other musicians, rely on the largess of others, which may or may not satisfy the obsessive cravings of a perfectionist.

In Charleston, this theoretical problem has occasionally manifested itself into a pressing concern, especially when one of those “Steinway Artists” come to town.

A Steinway Artist is a pianist whose preference for pianos manufactured by the famed Steinway & Sons company is declared publicly in exchange for access to a Steinway wherever he goes. No hard cash exchanges hands, only the ivories.

Trouble is, in Charleston, the only Steinway concert grand available is owned by the College of Charleston, and it’s not necessarily shiny enough for certain players, or always available. So they’re offered (gasp!) the Yamaha instead.

That Yamaha happens to be phenomenal, says anyone who touches it. Robust, too. Great for playing the Romantic literature and some modern stuff.

But (sigh) it’s not a Steinway.

Well, thanks to the ever-benevolent community-oriented Charles Fox of Fox Music House that dilemma has been resolved. Steinway Artists can get their Steinways on the stages of Charleston’s concert and recital halls because Fox has opened a Steinway showroom on Old Towne Road in West Ashley.

In the middle of the showroom floor at the Steinway store sits the brand-new 9-foot concert grand whose action already has seen a little action. The first to play it was 12-year-old West Ashley resident Caleb Borick, when he performed the Grieg Concerto in A minor with the Charleston Symphony Youth Orchestra on March 8. It was used again on April 11 at Memminger Auditorium during the second annual PepsiCo Young Artist Competition organized by the Charleston Symphony Orchestra.

The store sells all sorts of Steinways, along with the Steinway-designed Boston and Essex pianos (built in Japan and China respectively). Allen organs also are available. If you’re looking to fill your living room with the ebony-black of a full-length Steinway concert grand, be prepared to shell out up to $200,000. Or you can buy an entry-level Essex upright for about $6,000.

The gallery is a sister store to Fox Music on West Montague Avenue in North Charleston. It came about after the Steinway people approached Fox last year to find out if he would become an official dealer. Fox had sold Steinways in the 1970s and 1980s, and he felt it was time to renew the relationship, especially now that the famed piano company is making such fine instruments, he said. His is one of just 64 dealers in the United States. The official grand opening is June 16. Steinway president Ron Losby will attend.

The Charleston metropolitan area is home to about 600,000 people. How many of them are in the market for a Steinway product? Can Fox sustain this new line of business?

“I think it’s a worthy investment,” he said. “We move a lot of Steinways. Steinway customers don’t shop, they know what they want.”

And his market reach extends from Savannah to the North Carolina border; many musical relationships already have been forged, Fox said.

This territory includes concert halls, schools, churches, arts festivals and more. It boasts a growing resort and retirement community, with large homes continuing to be built ocean-side and elsewhere.

Until now, Steinway buyers have traveled to Atlanta, Charlotte, Columbia or New York City; now they need not go far, said Christopher Clark, manager of the new Steinway showroom. So, yeah, those Steinways seem likely to move off the showroom floor.

Clark said he’s not a piano salesman by training. He earned a music education degree and was a band teacher for years. So his goal is to collaborate with community artists and arts organizers, he said.

“We don’t just want to sell pianos.” Steinway programs help buyers figure out how to afford one of these pianos — by amortizing the expense or partnering with others. “We realize that no one can afford it and that the money is always an object,” Clark said. But where there is a will, there is often a way.

The Charleston Symphony Orchestra found a way recently. Well, that’s not giving credit where credit is due. It should be said that the CSO was the beneficiary of longtime supporter S. Dwane Thomas, a former board member, retired doctor and music connoisseur who decided to donate to the symphony a very special Steinway he found in New York City.

“He knew we didn’t have a proper instrument for our soloists,” said CSO Concertmaster Yuriy Bekker. “We always rent.”

It was a piano endorsed by the legendary Van Cliburn (literally, he signed it). Thomas had it fixed up by Steinway and delivered to Charleston. It belongs to the CSO but lives at the new Gaillard Center where it will be used by the orchestra’s guest players, at least the ones who claim to be Steinway Artists.

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook.com/aparkerwriter.