Thursday, July 25, 2013

L1037 and the Resiliency of a Great Tradition

We passed a pleasant evening last night in the company of Note by Note, Ben Niles' engaging documentary about the construction of "L1037," a Steinway concert grand. It's a lovely piece of work--the movie, but of course also the piano--not impaired by the fact that it's a giant infomercial for Steinway, because what does it matter whether Steinway gets an infomercial or not anyway?  As many have noted it is also an elegy--threnody?--to old-fashioned craft where guys (and yes, some women) get to do jobs they enjoy  for a decent piece of change.  The nearest comparison I can think of is those shots you get at the HD operas of backstage crews at the Met, although I suspect the Met crews get paid better, and that the Steinway crews exercise more skill.  

Our enjoyment was  not greatly dampened by the thought that the old family firm is just now being sold to an LBO house at a 33 percent premium over the recent trading price.  A spokesman for the buyer says  they are “not contemplating any changes to any of the manufacturing operations,” and one's natural first thought is: yeah, right.  The obvious path in a deal like this is to replace all the brass fittings with plastic and then trade off the brand name until it wears out at which time you throw it away.  But maybe not: Warren Buffett did business with Katherine Graham for a generation without ever trying to tell her how to run The Washington Post (and now that I think of it, the top guy at the shop that bought Steinway is also a director of the New York Times).  So we shall see.

Chez Buce is not favored with a Steinway, grand or otherwise, but we do have a lovely little Petrof upright; Mrs. Buce likes to tickle the ivories while I prepare dinner which is win-win as far as we're concerned. We bought it a few years back for about $6,000.  The tuner told us last week we could sell it for $26,000, which would make it the best investment we ever undertook.  But unlike the Steinways, we are not disposed to sell.

Seeing the Steinway show and eyeing our prized Petrof, I was prompted to do a bit of Googling. I learn that Petrof was a Bohemian who went down to Vienna to learn the piano trade, and built a firm which (so far as I can tell) remains in family hands today--a demographic not unlike Mrs. Buce's grandfather, although he never owned a piano company, or a piano.  And here's another fact that should have dawned on me before: evidently Petrof was confiscated by the Commies in 1948, returning to private (family) hands only after 1989.  I'd love to know more about that: were the Reds smart enough to realize that they had a golden goose, best left undisturbed?

But the history does offer a thread of consolation: if Petrof can survive the Soviet Minotaur, maybe Steinway can survive an Wall Street buyout.

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