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A Day with Two Piano Finalists

A Kawai and Chickering were in a tight race, until one took off and surpassed the other.
My whole Saturday was consumed with evaluating two pianos: a practically brand new “Kawai” 5’1″ grand and a larger, nearly 5’8″ size “Chickering,” 1980.

The Kawai captured my interest because a smaller studio upright of the same brand had been purchased by my adult student, “Fujie” on the day she had journeyed from piano hell to heaven. Once she had laid her hands on Yamaha’s chief rival, it was a fait accomplis.

The only other Kawai I had known up front and personal was the seven footer YORK had crawled under looking for money. Having enlisted me as a diving partner in this senseless expedition, I had my in depth view of a mammoth size piano that yielded absolutely no clue about its resonance or regulation. Only a journey back up to the deck, with a note to note review of 88 keys, produced a verdict. If I had stepped on pebbles, it would have produced the same effect.

So now I realized that Kawai had gone miles to improve its pianos after Fujie had acquired a tonally gorgeous and well regulated instrument that sent me scurrying to check out the bigger model.

A graceful woman with the look of a ballerina greeted me at 9 a.m. in her stately Old Fig Garden residence amidst her feverish housecleaning. She took a breather to sit within yards of her Kawai piano and partake of my house concert that included the works of Bach, Beethoven, Schumann and Chopin. She even relished the intermittent glissandi and chromatic scales at every decibel level imaginable that was part of my in depth assessment. Pleased with this piano’s lovely sonority and meticulous regulation (feel from note to note) I called “Jean,” who was in the midst of a torrid search for her dream grand piano, and suggested she hop down a.s.a.p to try out a “winner.”

My piano-seeking adventurer had already rightfully declined a “Knabe” 1978 grand that was housed in a cedar trim residence, plush in the mountains of Mariposa, where bears and mountain lions lurked and kept the seller’s dogs chained in a protected area. While this particular piano was safely stored within a climate friendly room with indirect sunlight and at no risk for attack, it hadn’t struck a bond with me or Jean that would take it from its safe quarters.

Jean turned out to be a stickler for detail in choosing the right piano. After she ran her fingers over the Kawai, I could tell her enthusiasm dwindled. Perhaps it was because she had checked out a Chickering grand the day before in a pollution hell south of Fresno–a journey purified by the heavenly sounds emanating from an ebony grand with an especially resonant bass. My curiosity peaked after she waxed poetic about it.

Chickerings were historic competitors with Steinway in the first few decades of the 20th century and those manufactured before the factory move from East Rochester, New York to Knoxville, Tennessee, were worth a look. The distinguished “Aeolian” Company had fathered “Mason and Hamlin,” “Chickering,” and “Weber” among other piano luminaries before all these once reputable pianos were bought out by Chinese companies who had enlisted cheap labor to manufacture instruments of lesser quality. (my opinion)

The Chickering located in Riverdale, California, had the old pedigree, and its one and only owner received the piano from her father who worked at Sherman Clay in Los Angeles and hand picked the piano for his grandson. This was a good beginning.

In just 5 minutes of running my fingers over its keys, I understood Jean’s excitement about it. The regal looking piano with its elegant inscription on the fall board, had the best of the old world sound, like sipping seasoned wine as accompaniment–with an irresistible resonance over its full keyboard, interrupted only by a problematic tonal break from the mid range to the bass–but otherwise a dream. Maybe one note needed voicing down, and two others required a minor adjustment, but despite these irregularities, the finish line was in sight, and this piano would be in the winner’s circle. (York had bounced by, giving the instrument his seal of approval)

The Kawai, though a worthy second place contender, was all but forgotten, though it had made a good run and should have rightfully acquired an appreciative owner. I had decided then and there to be its advocate and place it in a good home.

Jean had already contacted the piano movers after having made a sincere commitment to buy the Chickering, and I had to give her enormous credit for choosing the more mature sounding piano of the two. Not for a moment was she distracted by what was newer and under Waranty for the next ten years. Her pearly words of wisdom resonated on the trip from Riverdale back to Fresno, “What difference does any of that make if you don’t really love the piano.”

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