Finding the keys to a little-known museum
By Erin Bruehl
Downtown Express photo by Lorenzo Ciniglio
Kalman Detrich, executive director of the Museum of the American Piano, sits by a 2001 replica of a double manual harpsichord from 1736.
How many museums dedicate themselves to the history and preservation of American pianos? In the entire United States, there is only one and it is right here in Lower Manhattan.
Kalman Detrich founded the Museum of the American Piano in 1984. A non-profit organization, it is dedicated to preserving the history of the piano and teaches traditional methods of maintaining both older and newer pianos such as tuning, restoration, rebuilding, woodworking, and wood finishing. The museum also presents lunchtime and evening concerts several days a week.
Detrich grew up in Hungary playing the piano but came to America in 1956 to pursue an engineering degree. He started working in a piano shop for extra money and after receiving his degree from New York Institute of Technology, he decided he liked pianos better than engineering. He has now been in the piano business for 43 years.
I always played the piano, he said. I got my engineering degree and I liked pianos better. It is a beautiful, mechanically intriguing instrument. What is better to work with?
Unknown to many Downtown residents, the museum moved to the basement of 291 Broadway (with an entrance at the corner of Reade St.) from 58th St. in March 2002 and features exhibits of mostly American but also British, German and French pianos. Vertical pianos, square pianos, harp pianos, harpsichord replicas and grand pianos dating back as far as 1796 are on exhibit. The exhibits detail the history and evolution of each type of piano.
The exhibit of square pianos documents the progression to larger and louder from 1796 through the end of the 1800s in response to increasing demands for recitals in concert halls.
The vertical pianos from the mid to late 1800s reflect how central the piano was to many peoples everyday lives.
At home the piano was where people gathered. Everything took place in the home. There was not much else to do. Music was everything, Detrich said.
The museum relies on donations for both its pianos and funding. It is a public institution and depends on membership dues, donations and visitors to exhibits. Detrich said on some days, few people come in.
Sometimes we get groups of 25-30 people, some individuals just walk in. Its very sporadic such as maybe fifty people one day, and the next day three. For concerts, some days it is a full house and sometimes only about five people. Mondays are very busy because many other museums are closed, he said.
The museum also sees many visitors on holidays such as Columbus Day and Veterans Day.
In addition to the exhibits, the museum also offers classes in everything from piano lessons to piano restoration. Classes are small, around five people per class and are mostly beginners.
You start from scratch. You dont have to be a pianist. You just have to know a little about music, Detrich said.
We have a 5-year-old and a 74-year-old who both just started lessons, said Peter Julinszki, the only other full-time employee of the museum besides Detrich.
The museum also has a restoration shop for anyone who wants his piano restored and Mr. Detrich does the restoration himself.
In addition, they offer both lunchtime and evening concerts a few days per week in their concert hall, which holds around 60 people. Lunchtime concerts are free, run from around noon to 1 p.m., are held at least once a week, and feature a wide variety of music from ragtime to jazz. The next lunchtime concerts are on November 26, which features Jeremy Rosen with Ragtime Piano music and December 4 with an all-classical program with Upcoming Artists from Manhattan School of Music.
Evening concerts, which are also held at least once a week, start around 6 p.m. and usually last two hours. Donations are suggested but not required. The busy season for evening concerts is coming up and the next concert is on December 1 from 7 p.m.-9 p.m. and features the second part of Rick DellaRattas piano Jazz for Peace evening.
Charlotte Wernick, a museum member, raved about how much it has to offer.
Its a shame more people dont know about it. They do free concerts. You just give a donation. I come to all the concerts that I can. You go to Lincoln Center and it costs you a fortune. Here you get two hours of evening concerts for free. Its wonderful, she said.
The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Self-guided tours are $8 for adults and $5 for seniors and students. www.museumforpianos.org. (212) 406-6060.