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.
—Kemer

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