Grace Notes on a Grand Piano

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The New York Sun

A chronicle of the laborious, yearlong process involved in hand-building a nine-foot concert grand, Benjamin Niles’s “Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037” unveils the humble blue-collar beginnings behind the elitist brand’s pianos. The company’s factory in Queens employs skilled foreign woodworkers and tuners who grew up around the neighborhood. They speak about their work with so much pride and conviction, yet they can’t afford to own the finished product of their labor of love — the pianos sell for more than $100,000 each. Mr. Niles initially teases viewers with the promise of a juicy story about immigrants, class division, and the handcraftsmanship that is fast disappearing in this country, but instead his film is little more than a puff piece filled with celebrity testimonials and demonstrations.

Mr. Niles haphazardly juxtaposes the making of the L1037 with a parallel narrative of famed pianists conducting private auditions for the perfect instrument in the basement of Steinway Hall. Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Bill Charlap, Harry Connick Jr., Hélène Grimaud, and Lang Lang are among the artists interviewed, but few of their comments are specifically about Steinway (and a couple of them speak in such broken English that they don’t make much sense at all). While impromptu performances, such as Mr. Lang on Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 2” in C Minor Op. 18, are appreciable, enduring Mr. Aimard monotonously trying out each piano in the Steinway Hall basement is as exciting as listening to a metronome tick.

There’s a sense of thankless anonymity among the Steinway craftsmen, at least as presented here. Mr. Niles is evidently uninterested in them, despite the fact that they clearly supply the best sound bites. Their tales about where they come from and how they’ve acquired their piano-making skills are often fascinating. But most of the time, the filmmaker prefers to show them in a montage accompanied by some random piano piece. Scenes from Steinway’s factory sale are downright depressing, with the workers’ dedication and perfectionism taken for granted by a parade of overachieving children and pushy parents who live vicariously through them.

Quite a few of the workers talk about Steinway’s supposed superiority over unidentified “other brands,” and Mr. Niles here throws the film’s objectivity entirely out the window by omitting interviews with competitors or unaffiliated experts. “Note by Note,” which begins a two-week run at Film Forum, is also seriously lacking in historical background and context. The Wikipedia entry on Steinway will tell you more about the company and its pianos than this documentary does in its 81 minutes. For example, the film fails to mention that Steinway also has a factory in Hamburg, Germany, as well as two discount brands manufactured in Japan, South Korea, and China. Just like constructing a piano, filmmaking is a craft. This documentary, which purports to celebrate handcraftsmanship, is the work of a filmmaking novice with an extensive background in graphic design, and that is no small irony.

Through November 20 (209 W. Houston St., between Sixth Avenue and Varick Street, 212-727-8110).

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