Thursday, November 15, 2012

Less is More

I spent the day listening to the wonderful baroque organ at All Souls’ Episcopal Church, and it really was a revelation. What a glorious, big sound! This is a big sound full of nuance and color. I’m struggling to comprehend why we thought modern materials and technology could improve upon that design.

At the risk of over-simplifying, a baroque organ (perhaps more accurately, a “baroque-style organ”) differs from a “modern” organ in several key areas. First of all, it is all mechanical, with the exception that nowadays electric blowers replace hand bellows. No electric relays or fancy electronics. Secondly, it is constructed with lots of wood components: there is no plastic and metal is relegated to the pipes and small pivots and connectors. Indeed, they are often assembled using wood pegs, rather than screws. Why does this matter? Wood has many desirable properties, including acoustic, but it also is sensitive to changes in humidity—just like other acoustic instruments. Finally, the air pressure used to blow the pipes is lower.

This feature of lower air pressure is similar to that of the pitch/tension for stringed instruments. Higher pitch results in higher tension and generally greater volume. There is a cost. Higher tension results in a brighter, more strident sound. Likewise, higher air pressure in organs may result in more volume, but it affects the sound. Think of blowing a whistle: with a moderate blow, you get a nice round sound. Blowing as hard as you can results in a louder, but more shrill sound.

Geoff Graham, the organist at All Souls', is like a proud father of this organ, and rightfully so. His enthusiasm for the features and nuances is infectious. I returned home with a copy of “The Organ Handbook,” by Hans Klotz at Geoff’s insistence. The details of the organ have always eluded me. Even worse, it abounds with terms of obscure German origin: Hauptwerk, Rückpositiv, Brustpedal, etc. Not to mention the huge list of stops: Rauschpfeife, Quintade, Gedackt, Rohrflöte, Sifflöte, etc., etc. I’ve looked on Wikipedia in the past to make light of this, with little success. Klotz’s book is a step in the right direction.

Maude Gratton at the organ
I must be truthful: all of the recordings I own feature baroque organs, mostly historic instruments that have been preserved or restored, so I’m sure I’m predisposed to their charms. However, I grew up with more modern pipe organs, and that is the live sound I am used to. And, for good reason: there aren't lots of baroque organs in Southern California. The modern organs may offer more of a lot of things, including volume and range, but for baroque music, a good baroque organ proves less is more.

Be sure to visit All Souls’ sometime to hear the real deal and decide for yourself. Better yet, hear it played by French virtuoso Maude Gratton Friday night. As Maude told me, it is the best instrument she has played in her American tour. Tickets can be purchased at the door. For details, see


Friday, November 9, 2012

Big Sound

The organ at All Souls'
I love big sound, which accounts for what seems like a small fortune I sink into my stereo equipment. Sound, mind you, not noise! Of all the solo instruments, nothing is capable of generating more decibels than the pipe organ. Try as I might, I can’t reproduce the experience of listening to an organ in my living room. There simply isn’t enough air to push around. This should be a compelling reason to come to All Souls’ Episcopal Church in Point Loma next Friday to hear French organist Maude Gratton play a program of Bach, Buxtehude, Bruhns, Weckmann, and Mendelssohn.

Maude Gratton is a name that risen especially over the last couple of years; I’ve been trying to get her lauded 2009 recording of W. F. Bach’s Fantaisies, Sonates & Fugues, but it remains an expensive import. (Perhaps I’ll get lucky and she will bring copies to sell at the concert…) She won the prestigious organ prize at the Bruges festival and was named “Young Soloist for Public Francophone Radio Stations” in 2006. A rising star, indeed!

Maude will be performing on not just any pipe organ, but rather the only baroque organ south of the Los Angeles area. An organ is an organ — right? Not really. Just like the piano and violin, modern organs are being built for size and power. The baroque organ is a more subtle instrument, one that uses lower air pressure (back in those days, they were pumped by hand) and direct mechanical connection from the keyboard to the pipes. This was the instrument that Bach wrote for and it is a unique opportunity to hear his music in that context.

Bach is, of course, a big draw, but Maude’s program includes pieces by other very important organ composers. Buxtehude is an oft recognized name; Bach walked half way across German to Lübeck to observe and study with him. As an aside, Buxtehude was offering his daughter as an enticement to inherit his important position, a trap Bach escaped. Weckmann was another important name. Considered by the Elector of Dresden the local superstar, a competition was arranged between he and J. J. Froberger; he may have lost the competition, but he gained an important friend and supporter in Froberger. Nicolaus Bruhns is the one name I didn’t recognize, and for good reason: there are only five of his organ works surviving, but he was considered one of the most prominent organists of his time. C.P.E. Bach said that his father admired and studied Bruhns’ work.

Maude ends her program with a leap of a century to Félix Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn was one of the most important musicians and organists of the early romantic period and key to the revival of J.S. Bach’s music and popularity. This isn’t such a leap, really: he was born only 59 years after Bach’s death. It will be fascinating to see how the concept of the organ evolved during that period of evolution.
You won’t want to miss this. All Souls’ is easy to get to and has plenty of parking. For advance tickets, call (619) 291–8246 with a credit card and they will be waiting at the entrance.


Thursday, September 6, 2012

Christoph Rousset: an incomplete discography

French harpsichordist Christoph Rousset will be coming to San Diego this season, and this should be cause for great celebration, at least for those of us who collect harpsichord recordings. Meaning no disrespect to the late Gustav Leonhardt, but I was never motivated to collect many of his recordings—a fact that may shock some. However, I own many of Rousset’s solo recordings, making him the leading contributor to my collection of harpsichord recordings. (For the record, I have only 209 solo harpsichord recordings, representing 95 artists. If you think that is a lot, you should chat with SDEMS Artist Director, Laurent Planchon, who is a serious collector.)

In preparation for Rousett’s April 9 concert, I thought I would share some thoughts about a couple of my personal favorites. These are by no means official SDEMS positions, and your mileage may vary. Laurent and I have dueled over our perceived strengths and weaknesses of these recordings for many years. In fact, I find as the years go by that I have come to better appreciate some of which I considered to be his “lesser” recordings, and I reserve the right to change my opinions at any time.

Rousset’s first recording that really grabbed me by the ears was his 1993 recording of the Pièces de Clavecin of Pancrace Royer, for which he was awarded the “Diapason d’Or”. Up until then I believe that Royer’s music—some of the latest in the harpsichord repertoire—was largely ignored outside of France. This recording by the then young artist caught everyone’s attention, if only for its electrifying performance of Le Vertigo. This recording was an exercise in both energy and suave subtlety and I think it marks the point at which I became seriously passionate about the harpsichord. Rousset recorded on the 1751 Hemsch, one of the great historical instruments and a favorite of his in his early recording years.

Just as Glenn Gould re-recorded his defining performance of the Goldberg Variations later in life, Rousset re-recorded the Royer in 2008, this time on the 1749/1784 Goujon. This later recording has the advantages of improved recording technology, but to my ears the energy and concept is unchanged. If you have neither recording, or for that matter nothing of Rousett’s, I would order this later release right away. When you receive it, play it with your very best high fidelity setup, perhaps with the volume up just a little, and don’t forget to wear a sweater, because you will get the chills when Le Vertigo is performed.

Although Rousset is closely associated with French music, his recordings of German composers should not be missed. He received a Cannes award in 1995 for his recording of Bach’s Partitas. His recording of Bach’s eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, is especially memorable and sadly out of print. One of Rousset’s earliest released recordings (1992) was of the music of J. J. Froberger. Sadly, this fine recording is no longer available; although I still find the sound on it a bit harsh, Rousset approaches with just the right amount of German clarity and French subtlety. Fortunately, Rousset released a new Froberger recording in 2009, this time brilliantly recorded on the 1701 Couchet. This recording is memorable for at least two reasons (other than the fabulous sound). First of all, this isn’t a compendium of “Froberger’s Best,” but rather six of the early suites from 1649 and 1656. Secondly, Rousset has applied his deep understanding of the French dance forms to some of what are arguably some of the earliest examples of the French Suite that were to become the rage of the Baroque. It is a unique take on tempi and articulation.

I’ve just scratched the surface. In the process, I just realized that I had not ordered Rousset’s latest recording of the music of Marchand and Rameau. Yikes! I guess that will make it 210 harpsichord recordings.
Now is the time to order your season tickets. In addition to the International Series, which includes Rousset’s performance, you won’t want to miss the Recital Series. Visit the SDEMS web site for details.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Theorbo Envy

The announcement of our new season inspires me to reflect on some of the things we are going to hear. We are in that awkward period of “killing time”: our first concert is months away! I think you will find the season has something for everyone, maintaining our position as one of the leading early music performance hosts in the U.S.: we have really big names–again!

But, I want to step back and point out a personal favorite and that is over six months away: Hopkinson Smith performing Bach on the theorbo as a part of our recital series. The opportunity to hear a solo recital on the Theorbo is, well, not a common occurrence. This is a unique opportunity to hear Bach from a different perspective by one of the very greatest musicians of our day.

I find that many have a hazy idea–at best–of what the theorbo is. You get points for recognizing it as a “big lute with a long neck,” but the theorbo has both history and ideosynchracies that make it special–and interesting. Yes: it is big, typically over six feet in length, making it possibly even more awkward to transport than a double bass. The theorbo was first conceived as an accompaniment instrument, designed to have sonorous sound that complemented the singer. Credit is often given to Giulio Caccini for its invention, and it seems to have been first introduced in his two collections, Le nuove musiche (1602 and 1614). To get its really low and full sound, the instrument’s neck was made so long that the top two strings simply couldn’t be brought up to standard lute pitch, so they were dropped by an octave. This is referred as “reentrant tuning.”
Reentrant Tuning
Another thing that sets the theorbo apart from other lutes is that it is usually strung with a single string per course. This may seem like a minor point, but it results in a pure tone that projects well and makes it possible to play with greater virtuosity.

Conceived as a continuo instrument, and given the awkwardness of reentrant tuning, you might be surprised to learn that there is a solo literature for the theorbo. In fact, I was first introduced to the theorbo by Hopkinson Smith’s 1978 recording of the music of Robert de Visée. I don’t know if this recording is even available any longer, but it remains probably the best out of my library of nine solo theorbo recordings.

Despite the challenges of transporting such an awkwardly large instrument, the theorbo is becoming increasingly common in early music ensembles. We have seen it a number of times at our concerts over the last several years. Thomas Boysen accompanied Paolo Pandolfo a couple of years ago and Benjamin Perrot provided the continuo for La Rêveuse just this last year.

Hopkinson Smith’s solo recital is guaranteed to be a more unique opportunity. Just because this recital is over six months away doesn’t mean you should wait to get your tickets! Order now: simply download this order form and mail it in.


Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Off the Beaten track

Two San Diego Early Music Society concerts this season established a connection that led me to my newest “favorite” recording: three string quartets by Hyacinthe and Louis-Emmanuel Jadin, performed by Quatuor Mosaïques on the naïve label.

I have begun to explore the string quartet repertoire seriously rather late in life. This repertoire is heavily dominated by the really big names, and rightfully so, but I like to find those lesser known gems a little off the beaten track. This can be a challenge because there is a vast supply of lesser known and decidedly mediocre music.

The first part of the equation connecting me to this recording was the brilliant performance by Quatuor Mosaïques. I hesitate to pass what I would consider to be informed judgment on their musicianship, since I’m a self-declared neophyte to the genre, except to say I thought they played with a combination of brilliance and simplicity, warmth and intensity, and great sincerity. But, then, I’m perhaps easily impressed by any world-class string quartet. What really sets Quatuor Mosaïques apart is their sound: they play with gut strings a full half-tone lower than modern quartets, resulting in a rich sound that is deep, warm, and devoid of harshness. It is an addictive sound.

The second performance, by Marcia Hadjimarkos, introduced me to the new name: Jadin. Her program included a sonata by this previously unknown-to-me and I was impressed by the originality and quality of this music. I know I was not the only one who sat up and took notice. This led me to a little research.

The Jadins were one of those musical dynasties in France in the 18th century. Such dynasties seem to be especially a phenomenon of the period: others that come to mind include the Bachs, Bendas, and Couperins. Two brothers stand out, Hyacinthe (1776–1800), whose life was tragically cut short by tuberculosis and Louis-Emmanuel (1768–1853). Both were born in Versailles and Louis-Emmanuel learned piano from Hyacinthe.

The Jadins are not entirely unknown. The ArkivMusic catalog lists nine recordings with works of theirs, although most of them are period compendiums. The Quatuor Mosaïques CD caught my immediate attention and it was soon delivered to my doorstep.

The opening two quartets, Opus 3, no. 1 and Opus 2, no. 1, are by Hyacinthe. Opus 3 is very Haydnesque or reminiscent of early Beethoven: very pleasant, indeed. Opus 2, on the other hand, is one of those quartets that makes you sit up and take notice: full of surprises and top grade themes that stick in your mind all day.

The final quartet on the recording is by younger brother Louis-Emmanuel: his Quartet no. 2 in f minor. It is distinct in style from the first two on the CD and is enticing, with character and passion.  Perhaps it is his only quartet that stands out, as there are no recordings of any of his other quartets.

It is great to get off the beaten track and find such treasures.


Sunday, May 6, 2012

Renaissance Man

Adriano Banchieri
Our 2011–12 season comes to a close … with a laugh … in the beautiful Hibben Gallery of the San Diego Museum of Art! The La Jolla Renaissance Singers will be performing the 20 part madrigal comedy Fete for the Evening of Carnival Thursday Before Supper by Adriano Banchieri (1568–1634).

Never heard of Banchieri? Me, neither! Director Wendy D. W. Clemente refers to him as a “one hit wonder.” Banchieri wrote 12 madrigal comedies, an equal number of Mass settings, and various liturgical music. His one hit? The 12th movement from this larger 20 part work being presented, Contrappunto bestiale alla mente, or Counterpoint of the animals. This one movement has been a favorite of choirs through the centuries. This is a rare opportunity to hear Banchieri’s big hit in the context of the larger piece and you really don’t want to miss it.

Banchieri was a true Renaissance man: a Benedictine monk better known as a theoretician who established the system for realizing figured bass. He also founded the Academia del Floridi, an instrumental music society that counted Claudio Monteverdi as one of its members. This is no stodgy liturgical work; it opens with:

Modern Pleasure invites everyone to a work designed to please and find favor. It's a party and you're all invited, especially if you're young and in love.

The La Jolla Renaissance Singers are a local treasure and their history with our Museum concerts goes back to the very beginning of these joint productions with the Museum. Their glorious sound fills the Hibben Gallery, leaking out throughout the rest of the museum, drawing people in. The concert is free with Museum admission. When you come, be sure to schedule some extra time, as there is always something special to see. For example, this month there is an enhanced collection of French art, bolstering the museum’s own fine collection with loans of paintings by Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin, Paul Serusier, Fernand Leger, Édouard Vuillard, and Pierre Bonnard.

The weather should be lovely for this Mother’s Day, a perfect day for a visit to Balboa Park. Come join us for the conclusion to our wonderful season.


Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Meeting Marcia—a Discography

I’m meeting Marcia Hadjimarkos, our performer for Friday evening’s recital series, for the first time Thursday. However, I have known her for years, thanks to recordings and the Internet. Indeed, our first introduction had a lasting influence on me: it triggered a wanderlust that has resulted in regular visits to Europe.

It started back around 2000, when I bumped into her Haydn recording on clavichord at Tower Records. Some of us remember the good old days, when you could browse in a local store and find such obscure recordings. This recording mesmerized me (it still does). I noticed in the notes was that although Marcia was born in the United States, she lived in France. I couldn’t comprehend why someone would prefer living in France over the United States. This triggered something in me.

The last time I had left the U.S. was 30 years earlier. For some reason, I was suddenly emboldened and began ordering both sheet music and CDs from Europe; I might add, the exchange rate was more favorable twelve years ago… I commissioned a clavichord from Joris Potvlieghe in Belgium and thus began my regular trips back to Europe. All triggered by Friday night’s performer.

I believe it was the next year that Marcia released her recording of C.P.E. Bach’s Pièces de caractère - Rondos et fantaisies on clavichord and fortepiano. These gems are perfectly performed and represent some the best from Bach’s second eldest son. It’s a pity that this recording is nearly impossible to find these days.

Her next recording is on fortepiano, a beautiful copy of a Stein, similar to the instruments Mozart would have played. The program is conservative and designed to please, including the Sonatas in C minor, KV 457, C major, KV 545, and B flat major, KV 333, along with three rondos. The sound quality of the recording overall is excellent, with just the right amount of room ambiance. I think programming the Sonata in C major, “sonata facile,” is actually quite bold: such a well-known piece leaves the performer very exposed. She gives the repeats in opening Allegro just the right amount of embellishment. In fact, her execution of ornaments reflects limits of the fortepiano action: simplified to the point where one trill that is usually flubbed by us amateurs is appropriately made into an appoggiatura. This recording is readily available, and is a must-have.

Marcia has had a long association with Dame Emma Kirkby, who we heard in concert this year. Kirkby is best known for her earlier music, but she released a recording of Haydn songs with Marcia accompanying on fortepiano. This is Haydn one doesn’t hear often, elegantly performed with a gorgeous sound.

Marcia’s latest recording is of Schubert, performed on a copy of a fortepiano by Johann Fritz, ca. 1814. This recording fills a gap in Schubert’s repertoire, including 22 of Schubert’s German Dances, along with the relatively large (40 minutes) Sonata, D 850 in D Major. Marcia demonstrates her ability to perfectly render miniatures in her treatment of the German Dances and the real depth and virtuosity in the Sonata. I find the modern piano to be a little too homogeneous—too bland—to bring out the best in Schubert. Marcia’s Fritz is the perfect instrument.

Don’t miss Friday’s recital, performed on an 1813 Broadwood fortepiano. Tickets are available online and at the door. For details and map of the venue, visit our web site.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

On the Map

It was purely coincidence, one of those things that just happens: two outstanding string quartets played back-to-back: the Emerson String Quartet on Sunday and Quatuor Mosaïques on Monday. Both had programs of … Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven. Indeed, the same Beethoven, the F Major, Op. 135. Both concert halls were state-of-the-art, and less than a mile apart. We didn't realize this until the last minute, which was just as well, because artistic director Laurent Planchon had one of those panic attacks artistic directors have. How lucky could you get?

Not to worry. Our concert with Quatuor Mosaïques may have had an unfair advantage: it was the second of the two, and so the one freshest in the minds of those who attended both. The conditions were perfect. The performers were well-rested. And, they had really magnificent instruments played at about A433 and strung with gut. Completely different sound!

If you read periodicals like FanFare, you will run into many strong opinions about string quartets that use period instruments: most of them condescending, if not outright negative. A chief complaint is the sound, which is often described as being thin and vibrato-less. The sound of Quatuor Mosaïques was by no means thin. Nor was it vibrato-less: to me they used vibrato judiciously. Perhaps less than modern practice, but it was a rich and natural sound.

I did not attend the Emerson String Quartet concert (I was busy feeding my new pals of Quatuor Mosaïques), but I personally love their recordings. However, I can't resist mentioning that several who attended both concerts said very nice things about our concert. Very nice.

As for the performers, they said very nice things about us. I have heard this many times this year: our performers appreciate San Diego’s attentive, enthusiastic, and clearly educated audience. They have all liked our venues, ranking them amongst the best of their tour. San Diego is viewed as a desirable and important stop by important musicians. We are definitely on the map.


Monday, April 16, 2012

The Traveling Musician’s Second-Best Friend

Anita Mitterer, Violist for Quatuor Mosaïques 
Life on the road is tough. The concert musician’s life is on the road, almost by definition, and one has to appreciate the sacrifices they make for their profession. I’ve hosted enough visiting musicians this year to get a realistic feel for the many challenges. Most of us struggle with jet lag when we travel: just try to imagine jet lag with the added stress of an important performance. Even worse, consider the prospect of being jet lagged and trying to perform an important concert.

However, I have found most traveling musicians to be resourceful and highly adaptable. I would even say “zen-like”: to maintain their sanity, they have learned to go with the flow, to adapt to the situation at hand … to live in the moment. I have yet to hear one whine about their lot in life, although they will sometimes admit they are a little tired. Not too tired to do a little sight-seeing.

One travel companion that has become ubiquitous is the phone camera. Convenient and surprisingly high quality, the phone camera is revolutionizing photography. As Chase Jarvis wrote in 2009, The Best Camera Is The One That's With You: iPhone Photography. The market for iPhone books is pretty crowded.

Anita Mitterer and Andrea Bischof    
So, I have just come to expect our visiting musicians to whip out their iPhone. It is comforting to note that when they visit San Diego, they are obviously enjoying the sights, because the phone camera is out so frequently. When the four musicians of Quatuor Mosaïques blew in yesterday, the first question they had was what should they see in San Diego. Where to start? My secret has been the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Of course, you can’t go wrong with the “regular” zoo, but the wide open spaces of the Safari Park provide a unique experience for most visitors, but especially those from Europe. No, Dorothy, we aren’t in Austria right now!
Quatuor Mosaïques performs tonight at the Neurosciences Institute. There isn’t a bad seat in that hall and it’s not too late to order your tickets and have them ready for you at the door. I’ll be at the ticket table, so say hi.
I called the phone camera the traveling musicians “second-best friend.” What do you think their “best friend” is?


Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Death of the Harpsichord and the Beheading of a Queen

Jan Ladislav Dussek: early rock star
We have a solo recital at the end of the month that should be both fun and a great history lesson. The end of the 18th century was a great time of change: the Prussians had started the path to coalesce hundreds of parochial kingdoms into what would become Germany, America had declared independence, and France was in turmoil and heading for a violent revolution, a well-recognized symbol of which was the beheading of Marie Antoinette.

Music, too, was in flux. At the time of his death (1750) J.S. Bach was considered a throwback to an old-fashioned style of music. A lighter, less complex and more tuneful style was sweeping across Europe: the “Galant Style.” This is usually described as being“pre-classical.” There are many nuances of this new popular style, including the “sensitive style” (Empfindsamer Stil) of C.P.E. Bach, which would lead to the Sturm und Drang of Haydn and Mozart, then on to Beethoven. Just as Europe was political turmoil, so was music, ultimately building up to the Romantic Period.

What greater example of this flux was there than the piano? Well-known to, and even promoted by, J.S. Bach: before the century was finished, it had muscled out the harpsichord. By the 19th century it was the vehicle of romantic music.

Much of Mozart and Haydn can be legitimately performed on the harpsichord. In fact, most of the music in the final quarter of the 18th century would be played on either harpsichord or the fortepiano. However, the mechanical and acoustic evolution of the fortepiano was rapidly making the competition irrelevant. The new volume and expressiveness was giving rise to a new generation of keyboard virtuoso.

One such virtuoso/composer is often overlooked today: Jan Ladislav Dussek (1760-1812). Mozart was only four years older. Dussek was well-regarded by Haydn and went on to become quite successful in London, where he was closely associated with John Broadwood, the piano builder. Dussek received one of Broadwood’s first 6-foot grand fortepianos and is believed to have had an important influence on the evolving design. This ultimately became “the Beethoven piano.”
Those who attend the April 27th recital by Marcia Hadjimarkos will have a chance to see and hear an 1813 Broadwood fortepiano. I’m not talking about a replica, but the real thing. Click here for details and tickets.
Dussek was, in fact, much beloved by the ill-fated Marie Antoinette. In 1793 he composed The Sufferings of the Queen of France, a dramatic piece with interspersed narration that paints her sorrow on being separated from her children and her final moments on the scaffold before the guillotine. This piece has suddenly become of intense interest to me because I agreed to be the narrator at the April 27th recital.

Dussek’s life was full of sex, melodrama, and intrigue: a perfect vehicle for some novelization or even big-budget Hollywood treatment — perhaps we could get Kirsten Dunst back in a cameo of Marie Antoinette! He became one of the first European superstars, preceding Franz Liszt. Indeed, he is attributed with the practice of positioning the piano parallel to the audience so that the audience could better admire his handsome features.
Don’t miss an opportunity to hear the instrument that killed the harpsichord, a dramatic rendition about the death of the Queen, and who knows, you may see me die of embarrassment onstage in my own world premier performance as a narrator.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

No need to fear the fortepiano

Our next concert is a with an Austrian string quartet—a really magnificent one!—but I don’t think it poses any challenges in gaining a robust and overflowing attendance. The medium (string quartet), repertoire (Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven), and venue (The Neurosciences Institute) are very much in the mainstream. You don’t want to miss it! However, it’s a busy month for us and I don’t want you to overlook another important concert, this time on a solo fortepiano, which is arguably much less “mainstream.”

The fact is, it is difficult to even get the opportunity to hear an early piano (or copy thereof) live anywhere in the U.S. Few specimens exist; you wouldn’t believe how difficult it is to even find an instrument for a recital!

So, I would hope to see crowds at the performance on a 200 year old fortepiano at All Soul’s Episcopal Church in Point Loma the end of this month. That concert will also have music of Mozart (very mainstream!), along with a number of his contemporaries (considerably less mainstream, but which will help us understand Mozart’s world a bit more). My experience over the years is that for some reason many people are almost afraid of the fortepiano. Perhaps the fortepiano’s sin, versus the harpsichord, is that it continued to evolve and there is now a ubiquitous modern version that people are familiar with and consider to be somehow superior.

Or, perhaps they have had a bad first experience with an early recording: a poorly maintained and tuned instrument that sounded more like an old western barroom upright. You know: thin and tinkly, not to mention horribly out-of-tune. Whatever the cause, I’ve noticed it is generally more challenging to generate enthusiasm for the earlier version of the piano.
Some years back I sponsored a recital of primarily early Beethoven on a fortepiano. I sent a letter to every piano teacher I could find in San Diego County offering free admission for the teacher and half price for students. What an opportunity to get some historical perspective! Sadly, only one teacher took me up on the offer: mine! Were they hostile to the idea of an early version, or simply afraid? I don’t know.
So, let me set the record straight. A well maintained “fortepiano” is not unlike today’s piano. It has much less volume, but generally considerably more color. As much as I love the modern piano, its sound is engineered for volume and homogeneity—if you wanted to be snooty, you could accuse it of being loud and bland, but let’s not go there. There are a number of recent recordings that underscore the attractiveness of a nice fortepiano in the hands of a virtuoso. The Beethoven sonatas performed by Ronald Brautigam on a variety of instruments really captures the essence of what Beethoven was striving for (Brautigam is even looking like Beethoven in his photos!) Very recently Kristian Bezuidenhout has been recording Mozart on fortepianos (on the harmonia mundi label) that give one the sense of the excitement Mozart himself must have generated.

The recital by Marcia Hadjimarkos Friday evening, April 27, is on a genuine 1813 fortepiano. This would have been a very modern design for Mozart (who died over 20 years later!), but it has the essence of the instruments he played. I’ve been looking for a way to get Marcia, one today’s great specialists, here for a recital. It is going to be a fun and educational program. Before you tell yourself, “I don’t do fortepiano,” give it a try.
Tickets can be ordered online at our web site. Don’t miss this unique opportunity.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

March: In like a Lion, but we still have April!

We are approaching the end of our 2011-2012 season. It seems like we are ending with a bang: we have three events in April, making it our busiest of the year.
  • Our third Museum Concert this Sunday, featuring our own local Courtly Noyse in a rollicking April Fool’s Day performance. This is the group my wife is always bugging about: “When is Courtly Noyse performing? Are they Next?” The performance is free with museum admission, and there is always something new and interesting to view at SDMA!
  • The string quartet Quatuor Mosaïques is performing Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven at the Neurosciences Museum auditorium on Monday the 16th. Some may not view this post-Baroque repertoire as being “early music” (we can argue all day about that definition), but this exceptional quartet specializes in historically informed performances on period instruments. Our future at this fine venue is cloudy, so this could be our last concert there.
  • Finally, Marcia Hardjimarkos is performing on a genuine Broadwood fortepiano at All Soul’s Church in Point Loma on Friday, April 27. Opportunities to hear any fortepiano — let alone and authentic one — are few and far between. I’ll write more about Marcia in the coming weeks: this concert was my personal choice; I have all of her recordings, have corresponded with her for years, and finally get to meet her. (Did I mention that I have my world premier at this recital as a narrator in one of the pieces?)
As always, you can order tickets online at our website. After April we have only one more event, a Museum Concert in May, then the long, quiet period until our next season.


Thursday, March 22, 2012

La Rêveuse in Town

La Rêveuse preparing to practice, while trying to ignore
some especially fine San Diego weather
It was time to pick up the musicians of La Rêveuse! I doubted that any musician would be crazy enough to pack a theorbo, especially for a third of the way around the globe—and then back-and-forth across the continent. Given that, transportation of three musicians, along with their baggage, shouldn't pose too much of a problem. Imagine my concern when I met the performers at the airport, only to see a large theorbo case, in addition to a not-so-small viola da gamba case!

Fortunately, theorbo player Benjamin Perrot is quite the expert in packing, and also the three with me—Florence, Benjamin, and Jeffrey—were not afraid of cramped spaces. We managed to make it home without problems.

I especially enjoy introducing musicians to San Diego, and the recent weather is cooperating very nicely. Florence wondered if weather was always like this. No, sometimes it is better. (We can ignore the weekend storm that dumped an inch of rain on us as an aberration.)

They have cooked up a surprise for us Friday night; I bound by an oath to not reveal it under any circumstance. Except to say, I can't wait. This is a nicely formed group: theorbo, viola da gamba, and harpsichord backing up the singer. Just to be clear: it's not all singing, you will have a chance to hear each of the instruments solo. It's not too late to order your tickets online.


Saturday, March 17, 2012

Preparations—La Rêveuse

Marc-Antoine Charpentier
For many, our concert events are simply that: an evening out, oblivious to what goes on behind the scenes. Volunteer work for that “event” actually started more than a year in advance. Once we have “locked-in” the date, venue, and performers’ commitments, there is generally little to do until a couple of weeks before the concert. Then, things get busy.

We try to iron out the details a couple of board meetings before the concert. Where are they going to stay? Do we have the program? How are we going to transport them around? Will their baggage and instruments all fit into the available vehicles? Are they going to practice before the concert, and if so, when and where and how are we going to get them there? When (and what) are they going to eat? Who’s going to drop them off at the airport?

It may come as a surprise, but we generally don’t have budget to place our visiting musicians in hotels, or to hire vans to move them around. We count on members and supporters to provide the hospitality and help transport them. Although this creates logistical challenges for everyone, some of us find this the most enjoyable aspect of the event. Our visiting musicians are generally used to this arrangement and many have said they would rather stay in a home than in a cold, sterile hotel. Often they are from Europe and to them San Diego is a very exotic locale. On the part of the hosts, it is an opportunity to get to know some of the finest musicians in the world, to get an inside view of their world, and to become part of the production.

The musicians of La Rêveuse will be arriving a couple of days early for next Friday’s concert, "Courtly Songs of Lambert and Charpentier": they will be flying in Wednesday evening, then leaving the day after the concert. I’ll be transporting three, and I’m taking it on faith that their instruments (in this case, I believe a viola da gamba and lute) will fit in my Honda CrV along with their baggage. They usually do. I have learned that it is an exercise in futility to think I can anticipate every challenge; I always think of the dialog in Shakespeare in Love:
Philip Henslowe: Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.
Hugh Fennyman: So what do we do?
Philip Henslowe: Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.
Hugh Fennyman: How?
Philip Henslowe: I don't know. It's a mystery.
Things generally work out with the last minute arrangements. How, it’s a mystery.
It’s not too late to get tickets! How many opportunities will you have to hear intimate music of 17th Century France, performed by a leading French group? Order tickets online here. And, if you are interested in helping with future events, grab me or one of the board members at next Friday’s concert. I’ll be at the ticket table.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

La Rêveuse & Jeffrey Thompson Coming to Town March 23

La Rêveuse & Jeffrey Thompson
You won't want to miss our next concert: the talented young French group La Rêveuse, teaming up with American tenor Jeffrey Thompson, to present a program  of songs by Lambert and Charpentier for the unique sound of the French haute-contre (high tenor) voice. Instrumental music of the period utilizing the viola da gamba, lute, and harpsichord will fill out the program and help establish the atmosphere.

Wikipedia has a nice article on Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643 – 24 February 1704), along with a recently discovered portrait that is presumed to be of him. As a piece of trivia, Wikipedia points out that the prelude to his Te Deum, H. 146, a rondeau, is well-known as the signature tune for the European Broadcasting Union, heard in the opening credits of the Vienna New Year's Concert, the Eurovision Song Contest and other Eurovision events. This theme was also the intro to "The Olympiad" films of Bud Greenspan.

Information on Michel Lambert (1610 – 29 June 1696) is more sparse. He was a French singing master, theorbist and composer. Most importantly, his vocal works have been attributed to the creation of the French opera.

Saint James by the Sea is the ideal venue for an ensemble of this size. I've been sitting in the back most of the time these days—I seem to have become our latest ticket-taker—and have been favorably impressed with how well the sound carries all the way back there.

For more information on the concert and how to buy tickets, visit our web site.

— Kemer