Miracle in a Box – A Piano Reborn (2009)
Documentary on restoration of a classic Steinway
Director: John Korty
Narrator: John Lithgow
Studio: Bridge Pin Productions
Video: 16:9 color
Audio: PCM stereo
Extras: Trailer, Commentary track by director, Extended interviews, Technical piano information on action etc., Bios of cast and crew, web links
Length: 56 minutes
This excellent film basically follows the work of the Callahan Piano restorers in Berkeley, CA, in bringing back to life a historic 1927 Steinway willed to The First Berkeley Piano Competition. The board of the non-profit organization decided the best use of the piano, when completed, was to award it to the winner of a pianists’ competition. We get to hear some quick excerpts by a number of different performs – many of them among those competing for the prize in the competition.
But the main thrust of the film is the huge amount of detailed work by many different people to restore this old piano to its original glory. There are over 6000 separate parts in a typical grand piano, and it costs more to restore a worthy than for Steinway to build one from scratch. Not only do we get to know some of the interesting staff at Callahan Piano and their varied backgrounds and interests, but also several concert pianists who give their assessment of the differences a really perfectly balanced and voiced piano can make. These include Garrick Ohlsson, composer Jake Heggie, ragtime expert Frederick Hodges, and the winner of the piano: Jared Redmond. The music heard on the soundtrack ranges from classical to jazz and boogie-woogie, and some of the film makes good use of multi-image techniques to show the simultaneous activities of some of the many staff members at Callahan.
Though there is a section in the film about the complex design of a piano’s action portion, David Stanwood, a designer of special piano actions, offers three short demonstrations in the Extras section that go into more detail. Considering that each one of the 88 keys in a piano has its very own dimensions and mechanical requirements, it’s amazing that all the notes on typical piano sound as even and much alike as they do. Stanwood has discovered than even variations of as little as a tenth of a gram in parts of the action can seriously affect the piano’s sound.
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