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.