Inside the eight trucks that pulled up in front of the Kennedy Center at 6:30 yesterday morning were 103 pianos and 15 piano movers, the entire full-time piano moving staff of Jordan Kitt's Music.
"It's probably more than we needed," said Joe McCormick, 32, the director of operations for Jordan Kitt's. But then no one at the company had ever moved 103 pianos under so tight a deadline.
Their job: to move $750,000 worth of Steinways, Kawais, Knabes, Hobart M. Cables, Bostons and Opus IIs onto the Kennedy Center's South Plaza in about three hours' time. At 9 a.m., technicians would start tuning them, and at 11:45, conductor Leonard Slatkin would lead a rehearsal of "100 Pianos," the largest massed piano concert ever staged in Washington, part of the Festival of China.
"Where do you want this one?" a mover shouted as he pushed a piano on a dolly like a hospital orderly rolling a gurney.
"For now just stage them, and we'll arrange them when we get the map," Joe shouted back.
Glenn Turner, head of the Kennedy Center's production operations shop, walked up and pulled out a diagram. It depicted an amphitheater of pianos: 28 uprights, or "verts," on the outdoor stage, two semicircular wings of 28 uprights on the plaza and 15 grand pianos directly in front of the maestro's podium.
One at a time, the Jordan Kitt's trucks pulled onto the sun-washed plaza. The doors rolled up, and the lift gates were folded out. Each piano was placed on a four-wheel dolly, rolled onto the lift gate and lowered onto the pavement.
Jordon Kitt's donated the pianos for the concert. The company sells more pianos than just about anybody, which means it moves a lot of pianos.
"You get the right equipment and people and you can do anything," said delivery manager Billy Chappell, 67, who must have regarded yesterday's job as pretty simple, considering he started in the business years ago at a New York City moving company called Dun Rite.
"You ever seen a piano go through a window?" Billy asked. "We used to put Steinway and Baldwin pianos through windows. Oh, yeah."
The piano movers would use a crane to lift the piano as high as seven stories. Anything higher than that, and they'd rig up a block and tackle and hoist the piano up over the streets of Gotham.
"Any wind blowing, you couldn't do it," Billy said.
When a piano mover dreams, he dreams of a ranch house with wide doors, big rooms and hardwood floors.
When he tosses and turns, it's because he's muscling a piano into a townhouse with a twisty interior stairway. But piano movers are nothing if not clever. And persistent.
"I only know of one move in the last four years where it physically couldn't be done," Joe said. "It was a large grand piano that the customer wanted in the basement. There was no way to get it down. We ended up putting it in the living room."
Then there was the diplomat who brought his piano with him when he moved to Washington -- to a house with 50 steps.
"It took two hours to get it up the steps," said Jon Blumberg, 33, shaking his head at the memory.
Or the piano they were called to remove from a house that had been renovated -- around the piano.
"We had to physically tear it apart to get it out," said Billy.
James Dockery, 63, started with Jordan Kitt's in 1974, leaving a warehouse job because he didn't like being cooped up. Doc, as everyone calls him, said that when he's driving down the street, he can always tell which house is getting the piano. It's the one with all the kids playing outside. Everyone wants to watch the piano be delivered, and he always has an audience.
"I'm sure that doesn't happen when you deliver a couch or a bed," Doc said.
By 8:30 at the Kennedy Center, the right side was finished: five curved lines of pianos. By 9:30, the mirror image on the left was done and the 11 piano tuners had shown up. Soon the plaza was filled with the sound of their symphony: plink, plink, plink, plunk, plunk, plunk.
Turner wandered among the forest of ebony, oak and mahogany pianos. "Well, I've counted it 100 times and I come up with 100 pianos," he said. Two spare uprights sat out of the way; a third was still on a truck, its leg broken on the move.
By 11, some of the pianists had arrived. They wondered which piano would be theirs. The seven-foot Steinway grand closest to the conductor was reserved for Sa Chen, winner of the 2005 Van Cliburn prize.
Joe asked her whether she could maybe try the Steinway she would be playing and let them know if it needed anything. She sat down, rested her fingers on the keyboard and played a few chords. Then she started at the C, danced down the keyboard with her right hand and stopped at the middle. With her left hand, she started on A and ran up the keyboard.
"No problem," she said. "That's great."
At 11:45, the pianists were in place, and Slatkin mounted the podium. He asked the piano movers whether they could move Sa Chen's Steinway slightly so she could see him better. Then he gave the signal, and the beginning of a Schubert march came rolling across the plaza.
There was just the sound of 100 pianos: jaunty, then martial, then delicate. For a moment, the piano movers weren't piano movers. They were an audience.
"This is amazing," said Billy. "It really is. I'll do this again."
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