Robert Estrin - piano expert

Interview with pianist George Ko: Selecting a Piano for a Performance

Enjoy this exclusive interview with the famous pianist, George Ko

In this video, Robert interviews pianist, George Ko, and discusses the challenges of selecting a piano for a concert performance.

Released on December 14, 2016

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Robert: Welcome to and I am Robert Estrin with a very special show today, How to Choose a Piano for a Concert. And we have a wonderful artist with us, concert pianist, George Ko. Welcome, George.

George: Thanks. It's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Robert: Great to have you here. A little bit about George, George is a pianist based in New York City. And he's been involved in philanthropy, in being an entrepreneur in music. He was actually the head of the Harvard Piano Society. So he brings a depth of experience to this question as to how to choose a piano for a concert. So we were just talking, as you came in, and discussing the fact that in the international competitions, there's actually a choice of pianos today. Tell us a little bit more about that.

George: So now, you know, with the great age of technology, there are a lot of different companies that can build these pianos. And they've learned a lot of different techniques. And so they've kind of want to showcase their best pianos. And, I mean, the house name, which is Steinway, has been making these pianos since, you know, in the 19th century. And so, you know, everyone, when they think of a concert grand piano, they think Steinway. But there are other companies that also produce nine-foot pianos, excuse me. And the big ones are Yamaha, Shigeru Kawai, and Fazioli.

And what's interesting is Fazioli is, you know, as you know, is a very relatively new piano company. It started from this Italian gentleman, Paolo Fazioli. His family made furniture. And then, you know, he loves piano. He's a pianist himself. So he's decided, Let's build pianos. And, I mean, the first pianos were awful. And he admits, they're, you know, not so great. But as experience from building these pianos kept him improving with technology, now they have a piano that's on the international competition stage.

So, normally, when you go to a big competition, they'll have a selection of, you know, a nine-foot Steinway. And depending where you are in the world, if you're in the United States, in North America, it's a nine-foot New York Steinway. If you're in Europe or Asia, it's normally a Hamburg Steinway. Then you have the nine-foot Fazioli. And then you have a nine-foot Yamaha CFX, which is a handmade Yamaha, and then the nine-foot Imperial Grand Shigeru-Kawai, which is also a handmade Kawai.

Robert: What about Bosendorfer, because Yamaha, of course, owns Bosendorfer? Are they providing that alternative to pianists as well?

George: You know, you would think so, because Bosendorfers have had a long history. I mean, they're fantastic Viennese instruments. And they've had a history of being the piano of choice for many, many great pianists, I mean, Paul Badura-Skoda, you know, Andras Schiff. And, actually, Victor Borge was famous for using Bosendorfer pianos.

Robert: Oscar Peterson in his genre.

George: Oscar Peterson in jazz, yes, of course. So it's a very well-known piano. You know, I can't speak for Yamaha since, you know, I have no affiliation with them. You know, if you're a company that has a name attached to your piano, you wanna promote that one. And, you know, if you have a Yamaha CFX with a 91-key Imperial Bosendorfer next to it, you know, it's kind of like you're competing with your own product.

Robert: True.

George: It would be nice. I think they should have the 91-key Bosendorfer.

Robert: Even more than that, you know, interestingly, and apropos to the subject today, every year, I go to the NAMM Show, the big music tradeshow right here in Orange County. And the first thing I do is I play every concert grand at the show. And one year, my favorite piano might be a Mason & Hamlin. One year, it might be a Shigeru. One year, it might be a Bosendorfer. It's oftentimes a different brand of piano. And I wanna get your opinion of this, and there's another point I'm gonna make about the show. My perspective is that when you get to that level of hand-built pianos, just as several Steinway Ds will be dramatically different from one another, when you get to this level, the brand sometimes is secondary to the specific instrument you're playing. And I was wondering what your perspective is on this.

George: Well, I mean, I couldn't agree more. But as a disclaimer, I'm a Steinway artist. So I'm supposed to say that you should only play on Steinways. But beside the point, you know, yeah, every piano has a different character, has a different sound. You know, the stereotype that the Japanese pianos are more consistent, I mean, that's also true, you know, in their handmade pianos. The Japanese are known for very specific craftsmanship. They're fairly highly precise. And a lot of their parts, even their handmade pianos, are machined. So the fittings are very exact.

But then, I mean, it kind of stops there. The thing about the Japanese pianos and Fazioli is that they are relentlessly trying to produce what they view as the iconic piano. So every year, their nine-foot Steinway is different. No nine-foot Steinway has the same design. If you actually look at Shigeru Kawai's imperial nine-foots, they, one year, decided to put carbon fiber in their bridge design, which is, it's shocking. I mean, this may not be a big deal if you're talking about cars. But in piano-making, where everything is wood and brass and iron, you suddenly introduce carbon fiber. So they're really experimenting with a lot of things.

Robert: To augment that, at the big Musikmesse in Hamburg, is it, in Germany, they actually had an all-carbon fiber piano, the Wessel, Nickel & Gross action from Mason & Hamlin. But the entire piano, including the soundboard, even the plate, was made of carbon fiber.

George: How did that sound?

Robert: You know, I heard good things about it. But I have not heard any recordings. I am going to the big tradeshow in Shanghai, which is coming up this weekend. So I'll get to see a lot of things over there. But I thought it's really interesting, with cutting edge, I think the reason for what you're describing here is that, by necessity, all concert grands are handmade, one-of-a-kind instruments, essentially. They're never mass-produced, are they?

George: No, I mean, Yamaha and Kawai do have mass-produced nine-foots. You know, I went to a piano festival sponsored by Kawai. And I thought it was very strange. They had the nine-foot handmade Shigeru Kawai. And then right next to it, they had a nine-foot manufactured Kawai. So I thought this was really strange, because, you know, there are two piano concerts. So, you know, naturally, you want to compare. You know, you go onstage, and while no one's looking, none of the Kawai technicians are there, you play on the nine-foot manufactured Kawai, it's a nice piano. And then you play on the handmade piano, and it's like seeing, you know, a rainbow for the first time.

And so, you know, people have often asked why the astronomical prices, you know? Like, why buy handmade piano? And the fact of the matter is that these craftsmen have spent their whole lives building these things. And they're so comfortable with their material that they can just touch the wood. You can see this big plate in the piano. And that's fitted by this guy named the bellyman. And he can just feel from the edges of the plates, you know, what's the best fitting into the rim for this piano. The people who create the soundboards, who lay the planks of wood next to each other and align the grains, you know, can eyeball it...

Robert: Years of experience.

George: Exactly. And it's better than any computer. So, I mean, even as good as technology gets, I'll always pick a handmade piano any day.

Robert: Absolutely. And, you know, in going with that, you know, recently, I played a performance for the annual music teachers association convention. And onstage were two brand new Steinway Ds. And you think, you know, here are two pianos straight from Steinway. They were so different from one another. You could not even believe it. And one of them was truly a great piano. The other one was, you know, nothing wrong with it, but didn't have that magic. And when you consider the soundboard is made of wood, and no two trees are alike, and human work, The thing to realize though, even about manufactured pianos, as you aptly put them, is that there's a tremendous amount of handwork. People would never believe that even on factory-made pianos, low-end pianos, they're hand-notching the bridges. So much of piano manufacturing is done the old-fashioned way, even in the mass-produced pianos, that it's kind of remarkable when you consider what it takes.

George: Yeah, every piano...I mean, the concert grand has over 12,000 parts. I mean, there's just so many high-precision work that's required that a robot just cannot do it. For example, notching the bridge, you just cannot find a robot...

Robert: Not yet.

George: I mean, yeah. You know, some guy at the MIT Media Lab will figure it out.

Robert: Right, they have machines that can play them pretty darn well now. But their people's performances at least...

George: Oh it's not,

Robert: Until now.

George: Right. But what's interesting is, you know, as a Steinway artist, one of the great luxuries I get to enjoy and I'm very privileged to is when I do a concert, you know, you're allowed to select which piano you want to play on. So, say, for example, you know, you're giving a concert at Symphony Hall in Boston...

Robert: You want a big one.

George: You want to big one. And you don't like any of the pianos in the hall. Now, I have to say the pianos in the hall are great. But, you know, if you don't, you can go to the Steinway dealer in your city. And Steinway has this concert artist department. And they have a circulation of hundreds of pianos that you can choose from. And every city has their own, you know, three...

Robert: And this really is fundamentally why Steinway is effectively the only choice for a touring artist. Or is this not the case anymore?

George: Yes and no. It's really the only choice if you want to pick what piano you want. If you don't have the luxury of a very wealthy sponsor, so to speak, because moving pianos is expens-, I mean,

Robert: We know all about that.

George: Exactly. You know, there are artists, very famous artists, like Maria Jo√Ło Pires, who is a Yamaha CFX artist. And Yamaha ships her piano to every city she performs in, you know? And then there are Shigeru Kawai artists that, you know, the same happens with them.

Robert: This must be a very select group of artists.

George: Yes, very select group. I mean, I believe Mikhail Pletnev is a Shigeru artist. And so for every concert, you know, it's a huge expense.

Robert: Horowitz used to travel with his Steinway concert grand.

George: Oh yeah. And, you know, that was out of pocket. I mean, Steinway did not pay for that. What's funny is Horowitz was so particular about his piano, not because it was better than every piano. It was just he was so used to it.

Robert: It was also doctored to a tremendous extent to be very light and bright. And he could control that. Anybody else sitting down at that piano would have a tough time adjusting.

George: Yeah, absolutely. And funny enough, I'm actually currently taking lessons with one of his premier students...

Robert: Oh, really?

George: , Eduardus Halim, who was his, you know, prized pupil. And Professor Halim would always mention, you know, Horowitz's piano was so incredibly light. I mean, just to give kind of a metric, a Steinway-regulated key, the down weight in grams should be, you know, 50 grams. And then it goes up from 25 to 30 grams. Horowitz's piano had a down weight of somewhere around 42. So it's on the light side. And then the up weight was 37 grams. So that means if you poke the key, it pops right up. And actually, if you watch all the Horowitz recordings, he plays very flat-fingered.

Robert: That's right.

George: You know, everything is from the knuckle.

Robert: It was a completely different technique.

George: Yeah, it's like a very supple...

Robert: Similar to Glenn Gould's technique.

George: Yes, in a way, yes. Glenn Gould's technique was... Actually, funny enough, one of my friends, he was Glenn Gould's technician.

Robert: Really?

George: And Glenn Gould had, you know, he toured with the same piano. But it was a concert artist piano. So he didn't own it. But Steinway shipped his piano around for concerts. Thankfully, he ended touring very early, so it didn't become a big expense. And my friend, I mean, there's a lot of problems with piano. He fixed everything. And Gould went back, and he played a Bach Partita. And he went to my friend and said, you know, "What did you do to the piano?" And he said, "Oh, I fixed everything. There were so many problems." "Dude, put everything back." And so my friend put every problem back in the piano. And it wasn't because it sounded better. He just did it because Gould didn't wanna change what he was doing.

Robert: Unbelievable.

George: So every musician's different.

Robert: What do you look for, personally?

George: Well, you know, I think there are a lot of different factors. You really have to consider the venue, you know, who you're playing with, you know, if it's a solo concert or orchestra, and also, if you have the luxury of time, the potential of the piano. And what I mean by that is a great piano technician can change the color, the voice, the character of a piano in just a couple hours, I mean, a good technician. A bad technician would just make it worse.

Robert: There are very, very few technicians who can do that, as you have discovered.

George: Well, yeah, I mean, one of my past teachers said, you know, Out of the 200 technicians you meet, almost all of them are not good technicians.

Robert: But this is true of contractors in your home, mechanics, and, God forbid, doctors.

George: I know. So, yeah, you never know. When you go to that selection room and, you know, you're picking a piano, so for example, if I'm playing at Carnegie...Carnegie Hall is one of the few halls in the world where it's acoustically wonderful everywhere you sit.

Robert: Absolutely.

George: So you can actually pick a very sensitive piano. It doesn't have to be too loud. It's very well-balanced. You know, for me, the most important thing is that the tone of the piano, if you play one note, you should hear a beautifully long sustain. And you should hear a nice beat to the vibration of the sound. If you're at home right now, you know, and you have a piano, go to your piano and just play one note. And you'll notice it's not just a single tone, that it kind of wobbles a little bit.

Robert: You did it too! I am just kidding.

George: I wobbles too actualy, then yeah. And what's funny is, you know, when you listen to that, the best pianos I've played on have the most harmonious wobbles. It's very, very hard to describe. When you play chords, they have a nice ring. And I look for that. I look for a wonderful tone. When you play a piano, you don't want it to have a metallic sound. And another thing is playability of the piano. You know, some pianos are so heavy that, you know, if you're playing... Like, right now, I'm recording the first 12 Chopin Etudes.

Robert: All right, Opus 10?

George: Yeah, Opus 10. It's very technically demanding.

Robert: Yeah. That's putting it mildly.

George: Yeah. And most people would not dare do it in a concert. And I did three recitals with that program.

Robert: All right, good for you.

George: And, you know, I played one recital with the piano that had a very difficult action. And my arms got, you know, very tight.

Robert: Of course.

George: They were very tired. And I could not play piano for the next day.

Robert: Oh my gosh! You have to be careful.

George: Yeah, so, I mean, anybody, even if you're just buying a piano or, you know, you have to be very careful what piano you get. And you have to be careful of which salesperson you're dealing with, because their goal is to sell you the piano. And very few are like you who are actually a pianist,

Robert: That's right.

George: , that is knowledgeable and, you know, cares about the customer to the extent that, you know, they don't get injured when they practice.

Robert: And it's interesting because there are teachers oftentimes who are helping students get pianos. And there are some teachers who come in, and they are hell-bent at getting the heaviest action they can get for their student with the idea that it's going to help develop their strength. Pianos, of course, some are gonna be heavier and lighter than others. But there's a range of what's normal. You know, as you said, you know, 50, maybe as low as 48, up to around 60 of down weight in the middle of the piano. If you're much higher than that, I think it could be dangerous. And lower than that, and you're not developing the strength you need.

George: Exactly. You know, even with a gram weight, sometimes you can't even go off of that, because the new Steinways that are coming out, you can measure gram weights of 58 grams down and then, you know, 27 up. And that's pretty heavy. But it feels, I mean, incredibly fast.

Robert: We've had pianos like that that fool you, because there's a psychoacoustic effect. If a piano produces a lot of sound, even if the action's heavy, it doesn't feel heavy.

George: And, also, you know, the piano companies today, they go into so much effort fine-tuning all these little details. Like, you wouldn't think about it. But, you know, like when a hammer goes up, there's this like piece of leather behind it called a back check, right? And Steinway created a new synthetic leather. It's completely patented. It's this private, you know, secret. You know, no one knows how they make it. But it had removed so many friction issues that, you know, just things like that, you know, like the bushing that houses the mechanism where the hammer goes up and down, like they put Teflon powder around it. And they figured out a way of using it with methanol that it won't stick in high humidity. And then it would freeze up the hammer so much that they, just those two changes. I mean, now, you can play the Opus 12 Etudes, or Opus 10 Etudes, and, you know, it won't hurt at all.

Robert: And then you have radical technologies like the Wessel, Nickel & Gross action, which is all, you know, synthetic carbon fiber shanks, where the whole mass of the action is less, giving a very different type of feel.

George: Right, exactly.

Robert: So, you know, I used to travel with my father to choose pianos for his recitals. And the way he would always choose a piano is twofold, one thing, right in the line of what you said, which is also one of the most important criteria to me, which is the tone life. And a piano that really is great, you almost get the sense of a bloom to the tone, where you press a key, and instead of it just instantly fading out, it almost seems to make a crescendo and then slowly fade away. And that's a sign of a great piano. But the other thing, he always chose a piano that was voiced warmer than others, because he had no problem with power, but wanted to get a truly beautiful pianissimo. But, of course, a great deal comes down to is are you using this for concerto? Is it a solo recital? How big is the hall? Is it chamber music? Is it Mozart? Is it Gershwin, you know? One size doesn't fit all, you know? Here we are with 60 pianos here. When I sit down and play the very same piece on different pianos, it inspires different performances. And so it is in choosing a concert grand, you know, you have to find the right piano for that purpose.

George: Yeah, it's really tough. And, also, what's interesting as a pianist, it's very important that, you know, once you reach out a certain level that you learn about how a piano is made and how the action works and what voicing means and how a piano creates its tone, so you can talk to a technician, you know, what kind of sound you're looking for, because you could select a piano that has a huge sound, like it just creates such a big sound. It can overwhelm an orchestra. But the voicing could be so harsh that you would never wanna play a lot on that piano. It would just hurt your ears.

Robert: Exactly.

George: So you have to be able to tell a technician, say, you know, Hey, I think the hammers need filing, and that way, you can kind of redo the voicing' and make it warmer. But if you don't know how to communicate that, you could find a great piano for concerto, but you could get a really bad review. And they say, you know, your tone was harsh. But it could just be your piano.

Robert: But it's a tremendous challenge particularly if you're trying a piano at a dealer or some other offsite location, then you get it into the hall, more than that, even trying a piano in the hall, and then you put the audience in there, which changes the acoustics. So it's a very great challenge. And it really, ultimately, takes years of experience and dozens, if not hundreds, of pianos to really get a handle on what's gonna work for you.

George: Oh, absolutely. I mean, if any of you get a chance to perform at Carnegie Hall, and it's a surreal experience, but it's a strange one. When you're onstage playing, you actually, you question yourself quite a bit, because it sounds quite muted. It sounds quite bad. You know, when you're playing, you're thinking, God, this huge piano, and no sound? And it's a strange hall, because, onstage, you think you're the worst pianist in the world. And out there in the audience, you're a rock star.

Robert: It's magic.

George: Yeah. You know, like, I've heard some shockingly mediocre musicians, they sound great in Carnegie Hall. You know, everything is, it really depends on the space. And you're right. It's down to experience. You know, once you get to a selection... I did a selection for a school one time. And once you play on nine-foots, when you go approach a piano, sometimes when you play a chord, you just know, No, this is not gonna do it. And if people don't understand selection and your history of playing, they might think you're being a snob. But, yeah, you kind of get a sense, you know? Like, you can kind of guess the potential of the piano.

Robert: Exactly. One last question before you go, because Steinway, you know, obviously is the most popular piano out there, because there are way more Steinway concert grands than all other companies put together out in the concert circuit, your impressions of Hamburg Steinway versus New York Steinway in the concert grand realm.

George: The big, long debate of Steinway pianos, oh geez.

Robert: I have a feeling about it. But perhaps you have a realm of experience that you can apply.

George: I'm kind of cautious, because most of my fans on Facebook are from Asia.

Robert: So they play Hamburg.

George: They play Hamburg . So one thing I want to get clear, the reason for that is Steinway is divided from the manufacturer in two companies, New York and Hamburg, what the two piano share though is that they have the same exact action, they have the same plates...

Robert: Wait a minute, the Renner action in Hamburg.

George: Oh, they have the same action... ok... they have the same action design, but actually now they switched, so actually New York and Hamburg are coming closer and closer together.

Robert: Well, they are still using Renner hammer shank snickles, or not in Hamburg anymore?

George: They're using... Renner makes them, but was Steinway design.

Robert: Did they have the accelerated action in Hamburg?

George: The accelerated action... I'd say 50-50. Some of them do...

Robert: Interesting, that's new to me, I am learning something.

George: I don't know if I am supposed to say it... Also, the felts they use for the hammers are exactly the same now, they both use a felt that has lining closer to the stomach of the lamb, so, that's changed. So, you know, they have a lot of similarities as now than as before, and then, you know, the main thing is the reason why Asia is susceptible to Hamburg was because they made an agreement that New York Steinway can be sold just in north and south America, and Hamburg will be responsible for Europe and Asia. Now, you know there are similar pianos, their character is very, very different. And I think the big difference is the sound board.

Robert: Is it a little bit thicker in Germany?

George: The German soundboard, as Steinway doesn't always admit it, is a hair thicker, just a hair. But the biggest difference, is that the New York soundboard is the only soundboard of all piano companies that I am aware of that has a diaphragmatic frame.

Robert: The tapered ends?

George: Yes. And with that has the ability to be more flexible, and to bounce sound.

Robert: So, they don't tape the soundboards on Hamburg Steinways to your knowledge?

George: No, they don't. And actually, if you look at the Japanese pianos, in the Japanese market they review the Hamberg Steinway to be the best piano in the world. So they actually build their pianos closely to the Hamburg so they also do not have tapered soundboards. Another big difference, is that the Steinway soundboard is actually grooved into the outer rim, it's the only piano company that does that. And so, you know, with all these differences, between Steinway and New York, you have one piano which is characteristically much louder than the other.

Robert: New York being louder?

George: Yes, New York being the louder one. So, i you want to play a concerto...

Robert: New York si the way to go...

George: You know, what's funny is want to go in a competition and there is a New York and a Hamburg, I know there is a concerto around, I don't even go pick, I just say "Oh, New York!". Is not worth it.

Robert: You just want to be heard?

George: Yeah.

Robert: Bounce with the orchestra is not easy task.

George: Yes, exactly. But what I'd say is what Hamburg piano is really good at is that they have a brilliant tone thats very sweet, it's a very sweet tone, very clear, it's a very clear piano. So if I was playing something with not a lot of pedal .

Robert: More of a earlier period of music?

George: Yeah, like Mozart, early Beethoven, Bach... I would lean towards the Hamburg pianos which is a lot of the great Bach, Beethoven or Mozart pianists they do, they lean towards the Hamburg, to the extent that they even have a custom made Hamburg piano called the "Fabbrini," which is an Italian technician, master tech, that he makes piano even more clear than it is.

Robert: Interesting.

George: But if I had to pick one, for my whole life, honestly I would pick the New York Steinway. The main reason being, in terms of tonal possibilities, I think it is the greatest. You know, the "una corda" pedal, the sound you get from the New York Steinway, I mean, not only mutes the sound but you get different colors, and it's also the favorite of all, my favorite pianists they all prefer the New York Steinway, Rachmaninoff, Rubinstein, Horowitz...

Robert: Of course, the pianos were made back then, compared to what's they have been made now, which comes back to central... to me, I'd have to try the specific piano to make a decision.

George: Oh yeah, I mean, one time I was in the concert-art basement in the new Steinway Hall, speaking of piano, na other was a Hamburg that was the best piano there. You know, you never know.

Robert: Like I said, at the NAMM show there was a model 280, I believe, Bosendorfer which is not the imperial, that was the best piano on the show, there wasn't even a second. It was just an incredible instrument. So, you never know.

George: You never know.

Robert: So, that's our lesson, you never know. Well, it has been great talking with you, I'll invite you back here to talk more, once again George Ko.

George: Thank you.

Robert: And we'll have the information for you, I encourage you to investigate and get to hear George, a fabulous pianist, thanks so much for joining us, once again Robert Estrin here for and

George: It's a pleasure.
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