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We’ve all seen the headlines about multi-million dollar Old Master violins and cellos. They wear their history with pride. Their owners entrust them to luthiers steeped in secret methods and recipes handed down through the centuries.
But, when it comes to concert pianos, age and patina are liabilities.
I had a conversation recently with a rising international star who complained that a Canadian concert grand he had used recently was below par. Since it is more than 10 years old, it really should be replaced by a new one, he said.
It’s true that, unlike a violin, whose fingerboard can be sanded down, or a cracked bridge fixed in 30 seconds, a piano can begin to suffer from a long list of cumbersome-to-fix ailments, from loose pins to worn hammers and bushings, to buzzing strings.
Concert pianos are supposed to be shiny and new, ready for the most demanding music. But should that mean jettisoning all 500 kg of hardwood, spruce, cast iron, steel, copper, felt, leather and laqueur that go into each grand piano?
A concert grand’s thick, bent-wood rim and heavy cast-iron plate are probably sturdier than the average circa 2012 Toronto glass condo tower. Everything else can be replaced as needed, at a fraction of the cost of a new instrument. And the case, if scratched or discolored, can be refinished.
Toronto piano technician Jamie Musselwhite has just finished an experiment that proves how even a piano destined for a dumpster can be brought back to life — and hold its own against any new piano — for less than replacing it with a new instrument.
Musselwhite rescued a semi-concert grand (7-feet long, compared to the 9 feet of a full concert grand) made by Heintzman in Toronto in 1929, from a school auditorium. It was unplayable, and looked as bad as the few working keys sounded.
This morning, I had a chance to play the finished product, which currently sits in the showroom window at Paul Hahn & Co., on Yonge St. I would not be able to guess its origins.*
Although some trees were felled and a few sheep shorn to supply the piano with new parts, Musselwhite re-used as much of the existing instrument as he could, even suing reclaimed spruce to hand-fashion new keys.
The price, for a hand-remade, handmade semi-concert grand? $35,000. The seasoned Canadian hardwoods and metal that hold this beast together are good for another 80 years.
There’s a brand-new Steinway semi-concert grand left over at Remenyi’s, on Bloor St for twice that amount. It’s a fine piano, but is it twice as fine? A Heintzman is not a Steinway, but we are all swayed by labels on occasion.
There are several excellent craftspeople in the GTA who rebuild and restore the glories of yesterday with the same care as the men and women who keep Old Master stringed instruments evergreen. There’s more to a fine piano than newness.
Or, as Musselwhite puts it, “Another beautiful piano saved from going to the dump.”
Musselwhite has chronicled and illustrated the journey from junkheap to concert piano on his blog, which you can visit here.
Here’s a short video Paul Hahn’s made:
* The piano’s action, although very smooth and responsive, is unusually heavy. I questioned Musselwhite on this. He says that many of the original lead weights inside the keys had been removed, and he didn’t replace them. It would require a few hours work to insert weights to suit a customer’s taste.