The $1 million piano that plays itself (just as well, because its owner can’t)

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For most people, part of the joy of owning a musical instrument is the challenge of mastering it. But for some, reading music, let alone playing it, is not on the agenda. Simply owning one of the best pianos in the world is its own reward.

Billionaire trucking magnate Lindsay Fox is among them. He owns several pianos, though he doesn’t play. But he certainly knows the value, and the price, of a Steinway when he sees one.

A crowd gathers on the footpath as Emerson Hsu plays a grand piano at the Lindsay Fox-backed Steinway Gallery in Armadale.Credit: Joe Armao

On Wednesday night, Fox will open Steinway Galleries, a new showroom dedicated to the Steinway & Sons brand, including a performance area regularly used for recitals. It also showcases the Spirio, a cutting-edge instrument that uses technology reminiscent of the old-school pianola to play itself, a grand piano which sells for between $350,000 and $1 million apiece; a baby grand version is available for $250,000.

According to Mark O’Connor, chief executive of the Exclusive Piano Group, which is behind the Steinway Gallery, between 60 and 70 per cent of the prestigious pianos sold in Australia last year were bought by people who don’t play.

Fox won’t be at the opening simply as an interested onlooker. He has invested $7 million in the space in High Street, Armadale, the third such showroom in the country, with one in St Leonards in Sydney, and another in Queensland’s Sanctuary Cove.

David Fox, Lindsay Fox and Paula Fox at the 2022 announcement of their $100 million pledge to the NGV.Credit: Getty

Fox met O’Connor when the latter was working for music chain Brashs, where he started his career as an organ demonstrator in Melbourne’s Northland shopping centre aged 15. Fox was looking for a piano for one of his grandchildren to learn on, and the pair struck up a friendship. In 2009, the former trucker convinced O’Connor to set up his own business, with his backing – and so the Exclusive Piano Group was born.

On Wednesday night pianist Emerson Hsu will perform at the opening. Having used different pianos throughout his career, including a Yamaha and a Kawai, he has also performed on Steinways, which he calls “the dream of every pianist”. Certain sounds and emotions can only be conveyed by certain instruments, he says.

Now in his fourth year of pharmacology at Melbourne University, Hsu says music has been a big part of his life since he was six, with violin and piano his instruments of choice.

The self-playing Steinway Spirio is programmed to play the musical genre and artist of your choice.Credit: Joe Armao

He has chosen to play Ballade number 2 by Chopin. “I appreciate every moment of the Ballades, they are very sensitive and [have a] very beautiful harmony that I don’t think many other composers can achieve,” he says.

O’Connor’s customers include individuals and institutions. He recalls one buyer who arrived with a backpack stuffed with $180,000 in notes, asking for a cash discount. “It took us half an hour to count.”

He says he has also sold pianos to the Melbourne, Adelaide and Tasmanian symphony orchestras, and to Melbourne’s revamped Arts Centre. “You can’t reopen a centre like the Arts Centre and have old pianos,” he says. “Generally, a venue like that would like to have a piano that is less than five years old at any time.”

For the self-playing Spirio, performances by top pianists such as Lang Lang are recorded and then accessed via an ipad, much like a Spotify playlist. Select your genre of choice and the ivories will go up and down as though played by an invisible performer.

The most popular selections last year were Beethoven’s Fur Elise by Jenny Lin, Adele’s Hello and Beyonce’s Halo, played by Sunny Choi. Also in the top 10 were Baby It’s Cold Outside, played by Simon Mulligan, and Billy Joel’s Piano Man, played by David Osborne.

Fox declined to be interviewed for this article, but his interest in the arts is well known. Last year, the Fox family donated $100 million to the National Gallery of Victoria for the construction of the NGV Contemporary, part of the new $1.7 billion Melbourne Arts Precinct. It is the largest cultural gift for a capital program to be made to an Australian art museum by a living donor.

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