Art

Playing with Time on a Gilded Age Piano

'Shastey’s Steinway: Music of the Gilded Age' performance by Michael Brown on piano and Nicholas Canellakis on cello at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (© Stephanie Berger)
‘Shastey’s Steinway: Music of the Gilded Age’ performance by Michael Brown on piano at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (© Stephanie Berger)

George A. Schastey had one of the most popular design firms among New York City’s Gilded Age elite, but now his work is barely known. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is changing that with Artistic Furniture of the Gilded Age, an exhibition highlighting his intricate and lavish woodwork, including his only known signed work: the case for an 1882 Steinway piano.

The 1882 Steinway with case by George A. Schastey installed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Detail of the 1882 Steinway with case by George A. Schastey installed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

Through April, the museum is hosting four concerts on that piano, showcasing music that was popular in 19th-century salons. The concerts are performed right in the exhibition space, alongside the recently conserved Worsham-Rockefeller Dressing Room, newly linked to Schastey thanks to the signed piano. The serial number was verified with the Queens-based piano factory’s archives.

It looks more like a ship than a musical instrument, complete with a topless allegorical lady on its prow. But it is a Steinway, and on February 6 at the first of the Schastey Piano Series performances, “Something Strange: The American Parlor Meets the French Avant-Garde,” it played with tones as light as the amber-colored satinwood that forms its hulking case. With Ionic columns for legs, garlands of foliage carved from purpleheart wood, Renaissance-referencing flourishes, and Arts and Crafts-style cutouts on its music stand, the Schastey piano is a collision of influences, a frenzy of Aestheticism.

“I feel almost like I’m playing with time,” solo pianist Michael Brown said at the performance. With his iPad propped up on the delicate music stand, his hands arched over the keys, the original workings of the Steinway sounded the notes of Gabriel Fauré’s “Valse-Caprice No. 1 in A major Op. 30” and Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.” Both pieces were composed in 1882, when the piano case was built, and their composers likely played on instruments of similar timbre.

Brown also performed a four-handed Fauré piece with pianist Jerome Lowentha, and a Debussy cello duet with Nicholas Canellakis, before accompanying mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb. She sang Debussy’s seductive “Chansons de Bilitis,” in which a woman becomes enamored with the satyr Pan, in a velvety voice. It wasn’t completely like being in a 19th-century salon, the audience still surrounded by museum displays, the sounds of visitors in other galleries filtering through the walls, but it enlivened the exhibition in a way that’s rare in museums.

‘Shastey’s Steinway: Music of the Gilded Age’ performance by Michael Brown on piano and Nicholas Canellakis on cello at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (© Stephanie Berger)

There is a free Schastey concert titled “Tangos and Rags in the Salon” on February 26 with pianist Joshua Rifkin, then ticketed performances on March 4 with “Songs and Stories from the American Parlor” — focused on influential African-American composers like Jelly Roll Morton and Blind Tom — and, on April 6, “A Bird in a Gilded Cage,” with mezzo-soprano Naomi O’Connell and featuring operettas and other Gilded Age hits.

Just alongside the piano, you can peek through a window at the Worsham-Rockefeller Dressing Room, designed by Schastey in 1881 for Arabella Worsham, then-mistress and future wife of railroad mogul Collis P. Huntington. You can’t enter the room, just look in and imagine her sitting on the chair with the little mirror, surrounded by wood details of combs, jewelry, and scissors, long before she became one of the richest women in the world. In a podcast, Nate DiMeo of the Memory Palace poetically considers the inner life of this woman in this room, a space both quiet and lavish. All of the Artistic Furniture of the Gilded Age pieces belong to a world beyond our experience, but the podcast, like the piano concerts, are different ways of conjuring the human interactions that once animated for these objects.

The 1882 Steinway with case by George A. Schastey installed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
The 1882 Steinway with case by George A. Schastey installed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
The 1882 Steinway with case by George A. Schastey installed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
The 1882 Steinway with case by George A. Schastey installed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Detail of Model B grand piano, case by George A. Schastey & Co., piano by Steinway & Sons, New York City (1882), satinwood, purpleheart, brass, and silver mounts (collection of Paul Manganaro, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Detail of Model B grand piano, case by George A. Schastey & Co., piano by Steinway & Sons, New York City (1882), satinwood, purpleheart, brass, and silver mounts (collection of Paul Manganaro, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The Schastey Piano Series continues through April 16 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan). The exhibition Artistic Furniture of the Gilded Age continues through June 5.

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