It takes a year to build, it stretches 9 feet long, and it can be yours for the tidy sum of $100,000 and change. It’s the Steinway Concert Grand — specifically, the D model — the choice of concert pianists the world over. To call it the "Rolls Royce of grand pianos" would probably come as an insult to the men and women whose proud hard work — much of it done by hand — goes into each instrument they make.
This unexpectedly charming documentary from filmmaker Ben Niles follows the construction of one such piano — factory number L1037 — from the bending and molding of the raw maple that will become the piano rim in workshops of the Steinway & Sons factory in Queens, New York, to the final tone inspection as L1037 prepares to leave the shop and make its debut at Manhattan’s venerable Steinway Hall, diagonally across 57th Street from Carnegie Hall. In between, a small army of craftspeople — case makers, plate fitters, bellymen, chippers, rough tuners and tone regulators — lay their steady hands upon the incredibly complex instrument as it ever-so slowly comes together over the course of the year. While other major piano makers have upgraded to machine manufacturing, Steinway still insists on doing much of the work by hand, and as a consequence, the 150-year-old American company is only able to produce 2,000 per annum. Certain procedures, such as notching out the bridge, simply can't be done by machine; the slight variations that give each piano its distinct personality must be judged by eye and accounted for by hand. A slip of that hand, however, that results in, say, a scratch to the all-important soundboard — the "soul of the piano" — would spell disaster. As Steinway L1037 slowly comes together over the course of the year, Niles visits the cool cellars of Steinway Hall, where concert technician Ron Coners helpfully tries to match pianos in the Concert & Artist division with the needs of the individual pianists: from the very particular Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who's looking for a "monster" for an upcoming recital at Carnegie's Zankel Hall, to Harry Connick Jr., who likes a piano with "deep and heavy action." But the heart of the film is with the various piano makers themselves, who range from woodcarvers from eastern Europe to local guys from Steinway Street, men and women whose rare skills may soon become as arcane as a stonecutter's, as the company tries to manage the increasingly difficult balancing act between building their pianos according to the methods and specifications of the past and the demands of the fully modernized future. Nicely shot by Ben Wolf, Niles' documentary is the perfect film for anyone curious about how things we often take for granted are actually put together, while the soundtrack selection — piano music (naturally) by Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff — makes it a sure bet for music lovers.
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- Released: 2007
- Rating: NR
- Review: It takes a year to build, it stretches 9 feet long, and it can be yours for the tidy sum of $100,000 and change. It’s the Steinway Concert Grand — specifically, the D model — the choice of concert pianists the world over. To call it the "Rolls Royce of gra… (more)