Blue-collar American craftsmanship is alive and well in the quietly grand piano docu “Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037.” Saga of title instrument’s journey from Alaskan lumber yard to concert limelight plays allegretto to average moviegoers and keyboard aesthetes alike, yet with a detailed, deliberate approach to its subject that portends numerous small-screen and DVD recitals.
Somewhere in the New York borough of Queens, the diverse workforce at the 100-plus-year-old Steinway & Sons factory continue to build the renowned, extraordinarily complex concert grand pianos entirely by hand. When the weather’s good, they lunch as a group at outdoor picnic tables.
The construction process can take up to a year per instrument, and involves a wide variety of craftspeople with titles such as Bellyman and Grand Finisher. “Whaddo I know about pianos?” remembers burly, tattooed rough tuner Dennis Schweit of his first reaction to his job 11 years ago, effectively underlining the deliberately prolonged development of the many skill sets involved.
Each station of the factory is visited with some detail, and the workers’ love for both their individual jobs and the sum of the parts is palpable. “It’s never perfect,” admits concert tone regulator Bruce Campbell, even as he gives the impression of striving for perfection every day.
Sophomore helmer Ben Niles (“Josh Joplin: Better Days”) approaches his subject con amore, eliciting amiable observations from his talking heads and understanding the fine balance between chronological construction and the occasional inquisitive sidetrack. The phalanx of piano players praising the manufacturer runs the gamut from Pierre-Laurent Aimard to Harry Connick Jr. Latter almost sheepishly confesses, “I have a tendency to be rather heavy-handed … They know what I like.”
Tech credits are as precise as a Steinway itself. No mention is made of the title instrument’s eventual home, though it did make an appearance at the 2006 Hamptons fest post-preem pour. Pic subsequently won the docu prize at the 2007 Sarasota fest.