At the Metropolitan Museum of Art sits a special piano whose case is decorated by Schastey and which will be played for a series of concerts celebrating the Gilded Age.
Acting as a backbone for Astoria, Queens, Steinway Street begins where 39th Street meets Northern Boulevard. It stretches Northeast along the length of the neighborhood, crossing under Grand Central Parkway. It eventually ends just before it meets the widening part of the East River that acts as a buffer between Queens, Rikers Island, and mainland Bronx. There, at the end of Steinway Street, is its namesake: the Steinway and Sons piano factory, built in the nineteenth century and still operating today using the same obsessively calculated methods that made Steinway the gold standard in piano-building a century and a half ago. In fact, pianos as we know them today exist in large part because of innovations within the Steinway craft, and there are patents to prove it — 126 of them, in fact, which forever changed the way the instrument plays and sounds.
In the midst of this innovation, circa 1857, Steinway began commissioning artists to create rare, one-of-a-kind art cases. These have included the ridiculously opulent Alma-Tadema grand piano, made of ebony inlaid with ivory and mother of pearl, with a painting on the inside lid by Edward Poynter (Christie’s got $1.2 million for it in 1997, making it the priciest piano ever sold at auction), and the two pianos that have lived at the White House — the 100,000th Steinway grand, decorated by Thomas Wilmer Dewing, which was relocated to the Smithsonian and replaced by Steinway’s 300,000th grand, designed by New York architect Eric Gugler, with gold leaf by muralist Dunbar Beck.
Among the designers commissioned to create these art cases was George A. Schastey, a hugely successful cabinetmaker and interior decorator whose works form the basis of current Metropolitan Museum exhibition “Artistic Furniture of the Gilded Age.” The exhibit, which opened at the Met on December 15 and runs through May 1, features the ornate dressing-room furniture of Arabella Worsham, mistress and eventual wife of railroad mogul Collis P. Huntington, as well as the piano. But dressing-room furniture, however elaborately embellished, can’t be played in concert; though it was built in 1882, Schastey’s Steinway can, and it will be, thanks to Limor Tomer.
Tomer is the Met’s General Manager of Concerts and Lectures, and she’s responsible for an upcoming series of events that brings the Gilded Age into our Millennial one. Three concerts will place the Schastey piano front and center over the next three months, but don’t expect “Great Balls of Fire” to ring out in Gallery 746. In tandem with the theme of the exhibition, these pianists will focus on music of the Gilded Age. On the lowbrow end of the spectrum, the music from this period was played in the parlors of upper-class citizenry, mostly by unmarried young women interested in attracting husbands; in a highbrow setting, it was shared in salons among artists, musicians, writers, and other intellectuals as they convened to discuss ideas about culture and politics.