|Rebuilding gets underway on an 1889 Steinway C at the Cunningham factory.|
|Cunningham Piano Company
Piano specialist carries on a remarkable history
in a tech-savvy new chapter
If you needed any proof that YouTube is where the world goes to have its questions answered, look no further than the Cunningham Piano Company’s first 1 million-view video. Titled “What Do The Pedals On A Piano Do?,” it’s one in a series of “how-to” features offering a glimpse at the collective knowledge inside the piano specialist—all 127 years’ worth. Based in greater Philadelphia since the late 19th century, Cunningham is a manufacturer, rebuilder, and retailer. Within the past decade, it’s re-created a classic century-old piano line, founded a music school, and provided an organ for the Pope’s 2015 visit to Philadelphia. Last year, it was honored as Top New Dealer for Yamaha’s Keyboard Division. In short, Cunningham Piano has never felt compelled to choose a niche, and it’s hard to argue with the results: For the past three years running, the company has recorded double-digit sales growth, including a 38% spike for 2017. Co-owners Rich Galassini and Tim Oliver, both performing musicians themselves, head up a staff including artists, educators, and elite technicians, combining for a 360-degree view of the piano world.
“Our staff has performed as musicians all around the USA, Asia, and Europe,” says Galassini. “We also have staff members who have worked in factories as prestigious as Steinway and Bösendorfer. The scope of knowledge that is available to help our clients make the best decision on an instrument is unmatched locally—or perhaps internationally.”
Originally based in West Philadelphia, Cunningham Piano was founded by a young immigrant named Patrick Cunningham in 1891. The story goes that Patrick, a highly trained woodworker and craftsman, offered $10,000 to anyone who could build a better piano than his. Because no one ever took him up on the deal, he labeled his instrument the “Matchless Cunningham.” His pianos were favored by such notables as Vincent Persichetti and George Gershwin, who used one to compose the score to Porgy and Bess. After a half-century of production, though, World War II shortages shut down the Cunningham factory in 1943.
When the war ended in 1945, the company was purchased by one-time Cunningham technician Louis Cohen, who moved the operation to Philadelphia’s Germantown district and reinvented it as a rebuilding specialist—a focus of the business to this day. “Cunningham Piano has clients who send us their rebuild projects and purchase rebuilt pianos from us from all over the world,” says Galassini. “This has been an enduring part of who we are and this has not faltered at all.” Specializing in (but not limited to) vintage American brands, Cunningham has won numerous national and international bids for multi-piano restoration accounts, recently taking on two high-end jobs for Vanderbilt University. Among the restored pianos currently for sale at Cunningham are models by Steinway, Bösendorfer, and Grotrian – Steinweg.
“We have a reputation for always having something historic, unusual, or rare,” says Galassini, “and because of this, we get regular visitors from quite a distance.”
For the manufacturer-turned-rebuilder, events took an interesting turn in 2005—with the reintroduction of the Matchless Cunningham. Enlisting a team of skilled piano designers to study the original model and re-create it with 21st century updates, the company coordinated with a factory in China to produce the reimagined piano as the “New Matchless Cunningham.” Originally offered as a house brand, it became a strong seller for Cunningham and was later picked up by a handful of other retailers around the country. As Galassini says, “We are enjoying wonderful success with it.”
Today, Cunningham maintains two locations: its longtime base in Germantown, where it still has a factory and showroom, and a new space that opened in 2016 across from the famous King of Prussia Mall. With the new location, now its flagship, the company drew unprecedented foot traffic to a retail showroom stocking its own Cunningham brand pianos as well as rebuilds and a variety of carefully chosen new pianos, including Yamaha and Bösendorfer. After picking up the Yamaha line just two years ago, Cunningham is now the region’s exclusive source for Yamaha’s acoustic, hybrid, Clavinova, and Disklavier models. Thanks to a long record of serving institutions and high-end artists, it’s also been designated as an official location for colleges and universities in search of Yamaha and Bösendorfer instruments. Part of that equation, says Galassini, is that Cunningham can offer expert setup and fine-tuning for any piano on its floor. “Because an acoustic piano can be improved, often dramatically, by giving it special attention by an expert after it is set up, we have often had the experience of clients playing a piano in our location that they have liked much more than a piano they had just played somewhere else,” he explains.
With the move to King of Prussia came a new onsite music school, investments in technology, and a string of new hires for Cunningham. Hugh Sung, a professor at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music and inventor of AirTurn wireless foot pedals, signed on as director of institutional solutions and also became a frequent host of the company’s video series, now seen on YouTube and around social media. Several other newcomers, many of them young and tech-savvy, have sharpened the company’s focus on digital marketing as well as advancing technologies in the piano world itself.
“We can offer a mastery and integration of music technology at the highest level,” says Galassini. “Being able to pair cutting-edge technology being produced by a manufacturer with exciting technology from other third-party sources gives us an unprecedented ability to help our clients near and far. We have so many assets available to us through our staff, suppliers, and knowledge base. However, it is the relationships we build in this business that continue to drive our success again and again. In the end, if we can provide an experience, product, and knowledge that few others can, we will continue to be successful.”