WRITTEN BY: MICHAEL SCHULMAN
Three trucks, one school, two elevators, and seventeen brand-new grand pianos, weighing at least five hundred pounds each. “It has the flavor of a military operation,” Robert Sirota, the president of Manhattan School of Music, said, early last Wednesday. Two years ago, the conservatory, on West 122nd Street, began raising funds from alumni and other donors to refurbish its piano supply, with the goal of eventually replacing fifty instruments. With some two hundred piano students arriving in a matter of days, last week’s delivery, totalling more than ten thousand pounds, marked the first phase of the $2.4-million initiative.
“Owning a fleet of pianos is like owning a fleet of trucks,” Sirota explained, in his office. When he took his post, five years ago, he noticed that many of the school’s pianos—a ragbag of Yamahas, Baldwins, Bechsteins, and Mason & Hamlins—were looking (and sounding) battered. “One year’s usage of a piano in a practice room here is the equivalent of twenty years in a normal home, so we had pianos that had literally centuries of normal usage,” he said. For the upgrade, Sirota decided to buy all Steinways, for reasons that included frame design, durability (“They can take a lot of beating”), and proximity—Steinway & Sons has locations in Astoria and on Fifty-seventh Street, where, the previous day, the seventeen pianos had been prepped and loaded into trucks.
Pianos, unlike futons, require specialized transport, so this was no ordinary U-Haul job. All summer, the school worked with Bethany Rose, Steinway’s institutional-sales manager, to plan the move. On visits to the building, Rose and her staff mapped out a pathway for each incoming piano, treating the school like an obstacle course. “You’re obviously working with very expensive instruments, and you want to make sure they’re handled with the utmost care,” she said. On the day of the delivery, Rose was accompanied by a polisher, a tuning expert (he will revisit the school to monitor humidity), and a staff of burly moving men. In tow: twelve Model Ms (for practice rooms), four Model Bs (for faculty studios), and one Model D, a nine-foot, thousand-pound beauty, for the school’s main concert hall.
At nine o’clock, Sirota walked downstairs to the school’s entrance, where the trucks were parked. About twenty students in Steinway T-shirts, yanked from their dorm rooms for the occasion, streamed out of the building. “Over here!” a teacher shouted, motioning the students around a moving truck for a photo op. Two trumpeters, both recent grads, had set up in the street and played a fanfare, as if to greet an arriving monarch.
A truck’s doors opened, and a half-dozen movers began rolling out the Model D—legless, blanket-wrapped, and balanced on its side, like a box spring. As it descended to the street on a lift, the crowd cheered. “It feels like it’s my birthday,” Leah Claiborne, a third-year piano student, said.
The movers rolled the Model D, on a dolly, to the sidewalk, and propped it up alongside a Model B and a Model M. “The papa bear, the mama bear, and the baby bear,” Sirota said. The students were instructed to follow as the movers rolled the pianos toward the service entrance, on Claremont Avenue. One female student, spotting a man with a dog across the street, groaned, “I want to be a dog walker. Instead, I’m a piano escort.”
The procession continued into the lobby. Models B and M were crammed into elevators, while the Model D and its admirers entered the auditorium. The students filed onstage, and a gaggle of movers lugged the piano up a metal ramp. This took some time, so the trumpeters played several more flourishes. Finally, the piano landed onstage with a thud. “I need someone to get the legs!” a mover yelled.
As a couple of movers tore off the packaging, others returned with the piano’s legs and pedals, which were wrapped in red felt. “Should there be a ceremonial removal of the booties?” Marc Wienert, the school’s piano technician, asked. Once the Model D was assembled, the men carefully tilted it upright. Then they placed a bench in front of the keyboard, and whisked off the piano cover. The trumpets played a final fanfare.
The crowd took seats in the auditorium, and Raymond Wong, a slim doctoral student in a jacket and tie, approached the bench and, as the polisher wiped down the piano with cheesecloth, began playing the opening section of Ravel’s “La Valse.” When Wong was done, he took a bow.
“Do me a favor,” Sirota called out from the audience, “and play the last few pages.”
Wong looked down at the Model D and asked, “Can I keep it after?” ♦