Pologne-AF-P - 2011-04-05
Top-notch specialists have made Poland's city of Kalisz Europe's hub for piano restorers, with aging instruments being trucked in from far and wide for a new lease of life.
Driver Tadeusz Krakowski brings in a truckload of pianos from various parts of Europe each Thursday. On Mondays, he winds his way back with a consignment of restored instruments. "I've been been transporting pianos for 20 years, from all across Europe," he said while unloading a white Sauter piano at a workshop in the western city. "Today I've brought back seven grand pianos and an upright one. They'll be restored here in Kalisz," he told AFP. "This one is going to be made as good as new. Everything, from the mechanics to the body, which is going to done in black in line with the customer's taste." It takes around three months to get a piano back into shape.
"We're capable of restoring pretty much any piano, even if it's in an appalling condition," said workshop owner Witold Czubak.
"We redo the sound-board, the metal frame, the mechanical part. Damaged keys are re-covered -- with genuine ivory if the client's budget allows," he said. After that comes the tuning. Czubak was putting the final touches to a white Bechstein Model A, made in 1915, before its return to the German capital Berlin. "Most owners don't even know that their instruments have sometimes been on a return journey spanning several thousand kilometres," he said. "Restoration firms in Western Europe are just intermediaries who subcontract their work to us," he added.
More than 30 piano workshops in Kalisz and the surrounding area employ around 400 expert restorers. The largest and oldest is located in the historic former railway station at Nowe Skalmierzyce on the city's outskirts. There, Krzysztof Fiks has a staff of 70. He deals with any make of piano but his passion is Steinways. A full restoration costs between 3,000 and 4,00 euros (4,200 to 5,600 dollars), which is 30-40 percent cheaper than it would be in France, Germany or The Netherlands. "We've even restored pianos for customers in Japan, the United States or Australia," said Fiks.
Pianos have long been the pride and joy of Kalisz. It is a heritage dating from 1878 when the city lay on Tsarist Russia's border with Germany and local businessman Arnold Fibiger opened a factory making grand pianos. His instruments repeatedly won medals across Europe and at home in Poland, which became independence after World War I. The business was transformed into a furniture factory by Nazi Germany during World War II, but began turning out pianos again after the occupation ended, this time under state control after Poland's Soviet-installed communist regime nationalised the economy. The communist-era "Calisia" factory -- the Latin name for Kalisz -- produced about 4,500 pianos a year.
Appropriately, it was on Federic Chopin Street, named in honour of the iconic 19th century Polish-born composer and pianist.
After the fall of the regime in 1989, the factory struggled on in the face of sweeping market reforms that claimed state-run firms in a swathe of sectors. It finally went bust in 2007. "Cultural centres and schools stopped ordering them (the pianos) after communism ended," said Stanislaw Gondek, the factory's liquidator. "It's such a shame." Today weeds and "For Rent" signs sprout from the former factory's red-brick building, a protected monument. The Calisia brand itself was bought up by a Chinese firm. But a proud vestige of the past lives on in the shape of a training school that Fibiger founded for his apprentices.
Czubak, Fiks and almost all their staff are among its alumni, and students continue to study the art of tuning and restoring pianos at the revered institution.
"It's the only one if its kind in Poland, and one of three in Europe -- the two others are in Austria and Germany," said its director Jan Matuszewski.