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Dear fellow forum-members,

I have noted that world-class concert halls buy grand pianos at quite some higher frequency (for argument's sake let's say once every 10-20 years) than us mere mortals do.

Why do they do this?
● Sound or mechanics: new pianos are just better? Are they truly? Many great restorers and technicians can elevate good pianos to great – why not great pianos to concert level or maintain them there? Do pianos already loose sound or mechanical excellence after their first decade?
● Branding / marketing: new is better?
● Because they can? Music is not a high margin business, but the greatest concert halls have a bit more financial backing than others?

Concert grands can remain quite lovely instruments even after decades, some are even wonderful after a century.

It would be lovely if anyone has been involved in the thinking process from a concert hall perspective that could elucidate, and otherwise, also curious to hear anyone's opinion. Are the first or the second decade of a concert grand their golden decade?

A passionate piano amateur
PS – this is my first post on the forum
PPS - I realize that "world-class" is a subjective topic, and means different things to different people


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Welcome to PW!!

To answer your question, definitely the sound, quality and consistency of the piano is a deciding factor. Another issue is that concert pianos take a beating, so buying new means they get the most life out of them, and the pianos can be played at their peak, for the longest time.

Also, they buy new because they can!


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I have heard representatives from Steinway claim that 10 years on the concert stage is about all one of their pianos can take.

I have also heard the same representatives proclaim that Steinway pianos hold their value exceptionally well.

I do not know how one reconciles the two claims.

I do know that pianos that have substandard string termination configurations and too heavy hammers wear out very quickly, and the "service" techniques concert technicians employ to "solve" the issues that arise from substandard specifications to get through a performance often damage the piano long term.


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There are two factors that are involved: The higher tension relative to pitch of concert grands, and the constant heavy usage in concerts. Both of these factors accelerate fatigue and contribute to string breakage, and the latter contributes to hammer wear. Replace the hammers and strings, and maybe some other action parts, and they are good to go. Yamaha seems to do that and places their retired concert instruments in colleges.


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Some pianists insist on playing on new pianos only. Sokolov is an example who doesn't play on pianos older than 5 years. Also, high frequency maintenance takes its toll on all moving parts of the action and pin block, tuning pins, strings etc., quite different from you standard home piano with one tuning per year.

Some halls employ their own technicians, such as the Berlin Philharmonic and that technician will keep particularly beautiful instruments as long as they can maintain their quality and character. The oldest D in Berlin is 38 years old now and some pianists love this particular piano.

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Way above my social and economic status, but I'd say because they can afford it...

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I think that pianos do deteriorate over the years, especially if they are constantly being played on. Anecdotally, pianos in college practice rooms don't hold up after a while...

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Thanks for the replies! Very informative already!

You highlighted some things that also made me wonder like they made you wonder. Of course, a piano in a conservatory or any music school would get played on long sessions every day. Even my home piano with Rachmaninov every week for a hours clearly suffers (but it is of a certain age as well ;-).

However, major concert halls have at most one major piano concert a week, which means I believe those instruments are hardly ever played compared to other instruments - so it would seem that wear and tear should not affect them as much. A few major concertos even plus practice sessions should not hurt much - that was what concert grands are built for, I’d think.

The technician explanation sounds more feasible - but even then I would be curious to hear from some technicians whether it is actually true that an instrument actually suffers from extensive treatment.

Very interesting to hear the Berlin example - I would not be surprised that an instrument could last for decades in a great hall. Who knows of other examples? Both of longer term and short term stays?

Thanks


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Originally Posted by Ppianissimo
However, major concert halls have at most one major piano concert a week, which means I believe those instruments are hardly ever played compared to other instruments - so it would seem that wear and tear should not affect them as much. A few major concertos even plus practice sessions should not hurt much - that was what concert grands are built for, I’d think.

I think a lot of concerto repertoire is a lot harder on the piano than what's played by normal people or in practice rooms. Once I saw a young Ukrainian pianist play a Prokofiev concerto with such vigor that I was honestly shocked that the force didn't injure her (it was a great performance)!


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From what I’ve heard from piano friends is that concert halls get good to great discounts directly from the manufacturer. Much of concert hall funding comes from generous concert patrons. Plus, as Shirokuro mentioned concert hall pianos get tremendous wear and tear. Is somewhat like buying a Classic Rolls Royce from a limousine rental service. “It gets a lot of hard miles”.

Reputation too. If I was ever going to play Carnegie I certainly would expect a great piano. That’s my piano fantasy.

Last edited by j&j; 06/19/21 03:24 PM.

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There's also the question of whether the concert hall "back-stage climate" might contribute to the shorter longevity of a concert piano. As we are constantly reminded that maintaining a consistent temperature/humidity environment is healthy for our piano's lifetime, I can't image that backstage storage areas are climate controlled year-round. Some may be better controlled than others, but in those off-season weeks (or months, in some cases) when a hall is off-season, there may be cost-saving efforts on the part of management that might have an effect on the piano's life.

This is pure speculation on my part, and certainly may not be one of the major longevity factors, but over time, it may be a contributor.

Regards,


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Originally Posted by Ppianissimo
However, major concert halls have at most one major piano concert a week, which means I believe those instruments are hardly ever played compared to other instruments - so it would seem that wear and tear should not affect them as much. A few major concertos even plus practice sessions should not hurt much - that was what concert grands are built for, I’d think.

A concert hall that has at most one major piano concert a week isn't considered a major concert hall according to my experience. Just look at the schedule of my home town concert hall, www.konzerthaus.at and you will see that it has a schedule of offering many concerts throughout the week with a piano involved. Which always means that before any concert, sometimes in between intermissions and before rehearsals the piano will be serviced by a competent concert technician.

And every piano in such a venue is maintained by an expert with experience, which means he will be present during the rehearsals, discuss details with the pianist and adjust the one or other thing in terms of regulation and voicing.

Those pianos as part of the official fleet of a concert hall are the opposite of what you think concert life for a concert grand in a major institution looks like.

I've just got through a period where the one concert grand in this venue has received 12 full tunings and regulation sessions within one week. And we aren't even one of the major brands of providing a piano for the full set of concerts at the venue. There is a reason why institutions like the Konzerthaus have more than just one concert grand and it certainly is not the very rare requirement of having two pianos on stage for the Poulenc concerto.

Just as an aside: The venue mentioned has four different concert halls in the building and a depot for the pianos not in use. The Konzerthaus has made sure that the whole venue has a predictable climate for both storage and concerts when it comes to the pianos. If it hadn't, it would have to buy more concert grands every year to keep them in top shape for the visiting pianists, who expect a perfect piano.

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Originally Posted by BDB
There are two factors that are involved: The higher tension relative to pitch of concert grands, and the constant heavy usage in concerts. Both of these factors accelerate fatigue and contribute to string breakage, and the latter contributes to hammer wear. Replace the hammers and strings, and maybe some other action parts, and they are good to go. Yamaha seems to do that and places their retired concert instruments in colleges.

Is that really true? At the upper end of the scale, string length is limited by the percent of breaking tension, and the strings are short enough that the length of the piano doesn't matter. Of course, near the break, shorter grands lose string tension, in part due to poor scale design, and down in the bass, the short piano will have strings that are far too short to be ideal, but which are often heavy due to heavy-gauge copper windings. I don't know how close these bottom-end strings are to their breaking tension, but I wouldn't be surprised if it varied by manufacturer and scale design.

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Originally Posted by BruceD
There's also the question of whether the concert hall "back-stage climate" might contribute to the shorter longevity of a concert piano. As we are constantly reminded that maintaining a consistent temperature/humidity environment is healthy for our piano's lifetime, I can't image that backstage storage areas are climate controlled year-round. Some may be better controlled than others, but in those off-season weeks (or months, in some cases) when a hall is off-season, there may be cost-saving efforts on the part of management that might have an effect on the piano's life.

This is pure speculation on my part, and certainly may not be one of the major longevity factors, but over time, it may be a contributor.

Regards,
I have read that in the best concert halls the humidity is very carefully controlled and extreme care is taken with these instruments.I would like to hear from a concert technician what his answers are.I do not think we can compare our pianos at home with the expectations of professional musicians and artists.


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Concert pianists certainly are tough on pianos.


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Sir Andras Schiff has just done a breathtaking recital at Wigmore Hall, on a Hamburg D concert grand from '80s. Wonderful beautifully sounding piano:

Andras Schiff recital at Wigmore Hall


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Most newer major concert venues have climate controls systems on par with museums. They are ideal environments for piano preservation.

Newer pianos themselves are configured in much less than desirable specifications right from the factory as regards stability of tone and touch. Overly dense hammer felt and overweight hammers make for very unstable voice for the piano as you play and cause rapid wear of the cushioning cloths in the action. Thus they go out of regulation quickly.

Pianos can have deleterious things done like case hardening of V-bars and too broad and round profiled V-bars that allow the strings to develop buzzes in just a few years and will wear out the strings during tuning. Thus a piano like this that is tuned more often will result in rapid onset of string failure.

Pianos like this often force technicians to use damaging service techniques to mitigate the tone and touch issues.

What I am trying to show you is new pianos have many significant engineering problems that produce an instrument with a very high cost of ownership problem.


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Originally Posted by Ed McMorrow, RPT
Most newer major concert venues have climate controls systems on par with museums. They are ideal environments for piano preservation.

The Steinway movie showed a performer come to them in New York and play a variety of their pianos in the basement. One was super cold from winter transportation. He picked a piano he was happy with and they hauled it over to Carnegie Hall for his performance. Kinda interesting.

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Honestly it depends on the hall. The concert hall in my home town of Dundee Scotland bought a new Hamburg D in 2018, and it's a glorious instrument in every way. They also had their 1984 Hamburg D rebuilt with a new pinblock, action, and strings. It's also a glorious instrument in a different way, different tone, different aesthetic. So they have a choice of two. They also bought a 20 year old C to put in their small hall, but that was more a funding issue. The small hall didn't need a new piano, but it needed a good piano. The Caird Hall in Dundee plays host to virtually every major pianist who tours in the UK, and yet it's off the beaten track for the Steinway C and A department to send a piano so it's important that the in-house piano is good.

When buying pianos, not every concert hall will buy a new piano. Sometimes they will buy something from another hall that has been well looked after or an ex C and A piano from Steinway or someone else. The thing is the piano has to be reliable in every way and please as many artists as possible. A lot of this has to do with expectations and culture. Although many pianists love, for instance, Bechstein, Bösendorfer, Blüthner, Mason and Hamlin, etc, and many pianists love pianos from the mid-Century, it doesn't necessarily 'catch all'. Having a new Steinway D is pretty much a catch all, especially if it's in incredible condition.


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Originally Posted by Roy123
Originally Posted by BDB
There are two factors that are involved: The higher tension relative to pitch of concert grands, and the constant heavy usage in concerts. Both of these factors accelerate fatigue and contribute to string breakage, and the latter contributes to hammer wear. Replace the hammers and strings, and maybe some other action parts, and they are good to go. Yamaha seems to do that and places their retired concert instruments in colleges.

Is that really true? At the upper end of the scale, string length is limited by the percent of breaking tension, and the strings are short enough that the length of the piano doesn't matter. Of course, near the break, shorter grands lose string tension, in part due to poor scale design, and down in the bass, the short piano will have strings that are far too short to be ideal, but which are often heavy due to heavy-gauge copper windings. I don't know how close these bottom-end strings are to their breaking tension, but I wouldn't be surprised if it varied by manufacturer and scale design.

The longer the string for a given pitch, the higher the tension. You can change the gauge, but that does not change the percentage of breaking strength significantly. But if you have two strings and the gauge and the tension are the same, the longer string will be lower. To make them the same pitch, the tension must be higher.


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