Franchot's wrong chord

If nothing else, state Comptroller Peter Franchot's objection to Bowie State University's purchase of 32 new Steinway pianos for the $79 million new performing arts center it will open next year shows the state's top financial watchdog has a tin ear for value. Who would spend that kind of money on a state-of-the-art music facility and then fill it with penny-whistle instruments?

At a meeting of the state Board of Public Works on Wednesday, Mr. Franchot suggested the $553,264 price tag for the Steinway-designed pianos — a mix of concert, budget and entry-level instruments — was excessive at a time of fiscal austerity. He went on to ask whether the school had sought private funds for the purchase or whether it might get along just as well with cheaper brands that didn't carry the cachet of the Steinway name. After all, he asked, don't they all sound alike anyway?


Mr. Franchot apparently isn't very musical, or he would know that's not even the question he should be asking. Yes, there is a distinctive sound to the Steinway concert grand that no other piano can quite match. But what makes the brand the first choice of university and conservatory music programs is the quality of the materials and the craftsmanship that goes into the construction. In a college music program, aspiring keyboard artists pound away on practice room pianos for six or seven hours a day, every day, for years. Not many instruments can stand up to that kind of constant use without falling apart.

As anyone who has ever owned a piano will know, buying the instrument is just the beginning. If it is to keep playing well, it must be regularly tuned, voiced, adjusted and maintained by qualified technicians. All that tinkering takes a toll of its own, especially on concert and practice room instruments, which generally require some sort of service every few weeks.


True, an inexpensive piano that sounds great on the showroom floor won't lose much of its luster after several years in a private home where it's played a few times a week and tuned twice a year. But a university or concert instrument has got to be a lot sturdier, if only to withstand the rigorous maintenance schedule school music programs impose.

That's why, as in so many other areas, it's cheaper over the long run to buy quality. An inexpensive car may be fine if you only drive a few thousand miles a year. But it will quickly drain your wallet in service costs if you're commuting 150 miles a day. In the same way, cheap pianos in a university music program won't save the state a cent when they're used by hundreds of students, year in and year out.

At Wednesday's meeting, Mr. Franchot seemed particularly incensed by the possibility that Bowie faculty had been seduced by the mystique of the Steinway label. "Couldn't we have bought a couple of Steinways and the rest could have been Chevrolets rather than the Rolls Royces?" he asked. By "Chevrolets" we assume he had in mind the less-expensive piano lines made by Asian companies in countries such as South Korea, China and Japan, which have largely taken over what was once a virtual American monopoly on making pianos.

Yet, it turns out, that's exactly what Bowie officials did. While the four Steinway-label pianos the school bought are still made at the company's U.S. factory, the other 28 instruments are Steinway designs that the company sells under different brand names at lower cost. The Boston brand pianos are intermediate-grade instruments that sell for considerably less that a standard Steinway, and they're made at the Kawai piano factory in Hamamatsu, Japan. The Essex line of instruments are entry-level pianos that sell for even less; they're manufactured at the Pearl River piano factory in Guangzhou, China.

Because Bowie State bought a mix of instruments in quantity, it got a discount on the price. And given that a single Steinway grand can set you back close to $100,000, the school seems to have gotten a good deal on the lot.

In fairness to Mr. Franchot, he asked an appropriate question as to whether pianos of good quality that lack the Steinway cachet could be had for less, and Bowie officials were unable to answer. He should rest assured, though, that the difference between the sticker price for an Essex or Boston and equivalent quality pianos with different brand names is negligible.

It's always tempting to view Mr. Franchot's actions through the lens of his potential gubernatorial aspirations, but going up against a historically black university in Prince George's County is not a great move for someone who plans to run in a statewide Democratic primary. Since Mr. Franchot's ear for politics is obviously superior to his ear for music, we'll assume his concerns here were genuine, if ultimately unfounded.

Fortunately, the musical Gov. Martin O'Malley and State Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp wisely supplied two votes on the three-person board to override Mr. Franchot's misgivings. We appreciate Mr. Franchot's efforts to ferret out wasteful spending, but buying cheap pianos for Bowie's new performing arts center strikes us as pennywise and pound-foolish.