Steinway Spirio Launch in London

It is a truth universally acknowledged that every concert pianist must be in search of a Steinway and it was therefore with neither pride, (for I don’t own a Steinway D yet) nor prejudice, that I found myself at the London launch of a the first new Steinway model in over 70 years, the Spirio, last night.

The event was held at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in London .Those of you who are familiar with Central London and the beauty of its largest verdant space, the Hyde Park, will surely smile at the reminiscence of a gentle spring walk from Lancaster Gate Station through the Italian gardens which greeted me, the quadrangle of lilied fountains that could have been Monet’s set against the backdrop of seemingly endless horizon of green and the tranquil ribbon of shimmering silver that was the lake at sunset. The occasional cry of wild fowl and the gentle rustling of the leaves in the caressing evening breeze made up the sound of silence that served as the overture to the evening’s music during my short walk from the station to the gallery.

The Doric columns of the gallery itself were no more than a marker, however, as we were ushered into the glass atrium next door by the black clad, iPad sporting doormen, only to be greeted by a row of staff holding trays of drinks, from the demure - wines and champagne, to the bold – multi-coloured cocktails via the customisable (the bar to the right was ready to make any potions on request). It was an elegant crowd of around 50 people that was assembled there, excitedly talking in little clusters, dotted around the monochrome centre piece which was the raison d’être for the evening. Through the white smiles, shaking hands, floating sleeves, beautiful dresses and clinking glasses, I caught my first glimpse of the Spirio, lit from above in a gentle, muted way.

As any musician will attest, there is only one thing more electrifying than the growing din and volume of excited chatter before the beginning of a performance – the silence itself before the first note is heard. It was therefore with baited breath that we looked on as the CEO of Steinway, Michael Sweeney, took to the stage and told us about the development of this new model, the time, effort and research that went into making it possible, as well as the agonising that preceded it – after all, WHY does Steinway, whose pianos have long been seen as a paragon, really need to innovate? In a sense, I believe this was the key question of the whole evening, but more about that in a moment.

Next up we had a demonstration of this new piano – a pianist performed a Chopin Valse (Valse Brilliante, Op. 18 ) followed by a jazz piece. It is always difficult to hear pieces that one plays performed by someone else objectively, because after so much time and toil invested, where every note is a labour of love and deep thought, we come to believe that our version is in fact the only (right) way to perform the piece - since without this conviction we would never have the courage to leave the practise room and perform on stage in the first place. It is therefore not the performance I will talk about (the playing was good, if different to mine and the two video cameramen together with two photographers certainly didn’t make it any easier!) ... but the sound of the piano. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting but what came across was the lovely, rounded sound of ... a Steinway Model B (which this piano certainly looked like).

It was when the CEO took the stage again that we were shown what the Spirio was really about – as we got to listen to the performance that had just taken place again, together with the keys moving exactly as they had a moment ago, only without the pianist this time. Most importantly, it sounded exactly the same – trust my 27 years of playing the piano when I tell you that there was no difference, this was not being piped through some speakers, this was the piano playing exactly the same thing as the pianist had a moment ago – using the same keys pressed in exactly the same way, the hammers hitting the strings in exactly the same way, together with the pedalling. We then had a demonstration of one of the pieces that will be available on the Steinway archive for the Spirio which meant that we got to watch a video of Gershwin playing his own “I got rhythm”, seeing the keys move on the piano in front of us and hearing it make the actual sounds he was playing, all of this controlled from an app on the iPad.

This may not sound like such a big thing at first glance since different systems of digitising and recording the piano (for example the Yamaha Silent System) have been around for over a decade at least, but it truly is – or at least it could be. This brings us back again to the question from before which is, WHY? Making a piano capable of playing a piece of music that someone else has (just) performed in EXACTLY the same way is surely no mean feat, but neither is a “ghost”pianist surely the end goal...

I spent the rest of the evening talking to Michael and a few other key Steinway people about what direction they see this going in because, from my own standpoint as a concert pianist, I would absolutely love to have one of these at home – if it meant I could record into it something I am working on and then sit back and truly listen. Also, since we are always at the instrument, having this capability in the concert hall would be amazing, where we could play something and then have the piano play it again while we walk around the hall to observe how the tone, balance and texture sound at the back of the auditorium, for example. I am guessing that even if all of us who are concert pianists were to buy one (and I dare say that may not be a financially tenable idea for most of us), it would make for a very small market share for Steinway.

Where I can see Steinway making real headway with the Spirio, where I think this piano could in fact be a game changer, as I said to Michael, is – in education. I think that they could provide tuition using this instrument in a way that will make the videos of brightly coloured falling keys being pressed on YouTube superfluous. Why have a YouTube video to look at, why be forced take your attention off the piano for a moment, when a piano teacher (or a Steinway crafted course) could be teaching hundreds of people around the world simultaneously, the sound exactly audible everywhere and the speed of the key press (which affects the volume) clearly visible to one and all? Could each one of those potential students afford a Spirio? Definitely not... but could at least some educational institutions start by buying one? Given a good enough reason to, I’d guess - definitely yes.

The only question that remains is: will Steinway use the brand loyalty it inspires and its newest model to its full potential and become a leader also in piano education, or will they let the real world usage decide the spirit of its newest endeavour? I can’t wait to use the Steinway Spirio in creative ways for my own practise and performance but, first, I am off to win the lottery.

A little about Viktor Bijelovic...

Viktor is a concert pianist from Serbia – where he started playing the piano at the age of 7. Aged 11 he came to London to go to a specialist music school (The Purcell School of Music) on a full scholarship and thereafter the Royal Academy of Music where he completed his Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees.

He has been performing his entire life and continues to lead a busy career playing as a solo and chamber musician, as well as teaching and playing for various charities. Viktor is also an avid traveller and has had the good fortune to have his work take him all around the world (80 countries and counting) and is a great fan of good food, coffee, photography and languages. If you would like to know more about him, have a look at his website: www.viktorbijelovic.com and his latest 2 CDs can be found on iTunes: iTunes.
Author: Viktor Bijelovic / edited by Nina HELLO STAGE
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