'Note by Note': Revealing the Keys To a Grand Creation

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 17, 2007

Films that address the subject of classical music are always a rarity and most of them are of no intellectual interest whatsoever. As such, "Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037" stands out as a modest but distinct pleasure.

This 80-minute documentary, directed by Benjamin Niles and screening today at the Silverdocs film festival, is the story of a single Steinway & Sons grand piano as it is constructed over the course of a year in the company's New York warehouse.

The Steinway company itself, in business since 1853 and far and away the most famous American piano maker, permitted the filmmakers unprecedented access to its factories, offices and showrooms, but gave no financial backing in any way. This is, therefore, an affectionate but independent glimpse into the creation of a deeply complicated and remarkably eloquent machine.

And make no mistake: Before it is anything else, a grand piano is a machine -- fitted out with more than 12,000 parts, assembled by up to 450 people, including workers with titles such as tone regulator, rough tuner, case maker and (my favorite) bellyman, all of whom explain their craft.

While full-size, professional quality Steinway concert grands now sell for more than $100,000, the finished L1037 is available for rental from the company, and may follow a traveling pianist around the country or around the world, as desired. We are present when it makes its debut in Zankel Hall, an auditorium in the basement of the fabled Carnegie Hall, where it is played by the remarkable French musician Pierre-Laurent Aimard.

Other pianists are heard from as well, among them the jazz players Kenny Barron, Marcus Roberts and Hank Jones, and the bandleader Harry Connick Jr. Bill Charlap is shown trying out the opening measures of George Gershwin's Prelude No. 2 on several different pianos in the Steinway showroom -- the proverbial kid in the candy store. Another pianist, Helene Grimaud, speaks of the serene happiness she feels when she is ensconced in this "sea of instruments."

Chinese prodigy Lang Lang compares the qualities of a great piano to those of a great actor, noting that the instrument must be able to convey the proud pomp of an "emperor" (here, he plays the wham-bang opening measures of the Tchaikovsky First Concerto) as well as soft tenderness (a near-whispered rendition of the central movement of Rachmaninoff's Second Concerto).

As usual in music documentaries, there is very little unbroken music: Nobody seems to trust an audience's attention span anymore, and no more than a few measures are allowed to pass without a cutaway or a voice-over. But there are many terrific vignettes, including interviews with members of the Steinway family (who no longer own the firm but continue to take an interest in its fortunes); with a sharp-eared tuner who has spent 42 years on the job; and with a young worker who grew up in the Queens neighborhood where the company has been located for more than a century and naturally gravitated to the local business.

Even if one doesn't necessarily believe all the claims made here by Steinway employees -- surely the German piano firms of Bechstein and Boesendorfer lavish just as much personal attention on their instruments -- this is an engaging and instructive glimpse into a world of artisans and artists.

Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037 (80 minutes) will be shown today at 12:30 p.m. at the AFI Silver Theatre.

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