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Paolo Fazioli is inspecting a Shaughnessy house to see where the piano will go. “Mansion” is a better word for the Ernest Collins-designed structure, which runs to 19,000 square feet. Its blue-tiled indoor pool overlooks a city-park-style jungle gym, a tree-ringed lawn, and a masonry fountain that could be in Rome. Downstairs, a four-stool bar stocked with superior cognacs stands beside a full-size snooker table and cues from Riley of England, the billiards equivalent of Rolls-Royce. A door leads to an air-conditioned, securely barred garage where a Rolls-Royce long-wheelbase Phantom model keeps company with a matching white Bentley and a Mercedes-Benz pedal car.
Guiding Fazioli through the house is Zhao Zai Chen, who paid a then-record $17.5 million for it in 2010. Tour over, they return to the living room for porcelain dishes of fresh berries and cups of clear Oolong tea. The latter comes from the Wu Yi Star Tea Industrial Co. Ltd. in China’s Fujian province, where Chen’s Yong Zai Holding firm has extensive property interests.
To arrive in July, the piano will occupy an antechamber that already has a nine-foot Steinway grand. Its replacement, detail designed by architect Collins, will be a foot longer, have four pedals not three, cost $500,000 with a matching cabinet, and come from a factory that shipped its first instrument in 1981. The name on it will be Fazioli. It will be one of 120 turned out this year. Fifty-four such instruments, including Chen’s, have been sold by local Showcase Pianos owner Manuel Bernaschek, who in 2007 figured the market would stand just two or three a year. His fluency in Mandarin doubtless helped raise that estimate.
Also accompanying the piano will be a painting by self-taught local artist Mike Soloman. It will portray some 10 members of the Chen clan taking tea in their summertime garden while Fazioli himself entertains them at the keyboard. No artistic licence there: as well as his degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Rome, Fazioli graduated as a concert pianist from the Conservatory G. Rossini in Pesaro. His vital business studies, though, took place at the Università di Silenzio. As the youngest of six boys in a family that produced furniture for sale worldwide, “I was not allowed to participate in each night’s conversation about the business, just to hear it. If I spoke, my father would say, ‘Zitto .’ In the end, I knew everything about dealing with the economy and industrial problems.”
Acoustic problems can’t be resolved at the dinner table, though. So, having gained wood-science expertise at the family firm, Fazioli recruited the most accomplished technical, crafts, and performing people he could find and set out in 1978 to make what he wanted most of all: the world’s finest piano. Three years earlier, his perennially ship-loving brother Marcello had bailed out to incorporate Alfamarine and strive to make the world’s best 16-to-27-metre power yachts.
For the soundboards’ vital mix of maple, mahogany, boxwood, and spruce it helped to secure first dibs on ultra-quality spruce from the grove that had supplied violin maker Antonio Stradivari. With every improvement, though, concert artists and acousticians demanded more. To address them, Fazioli and the Polytechnic University of Milan are creating a computer model to simulate soundboard vibrations. The task is infinitely difficult. “But, if we’re lucky we’ll have better information to make and tension soundboards,” he said.
What he knows already is that the Chens’ 10-foot grand will represent “the limit” for production-model pianos. That’s because, however much they’re tensioned, horizontal strings sag-engineers call it catenary-and introduce sound impurities.
Fazioli is good at making somewhat impure sounds himself. Imitating a cooing pigeon, he likens certain competitors to a flock of such birds pecking at the ground. “Then you throw something in and-zi, zi, zi-they fly. That was how it was with pianos. We threw something in.”