Gwendolyn Toth

Gwendolyn Toth is the director of the New York City-based early music ensemble, ARTEK, and a soloist on early keyboards (organ, harpsichord, fortepiano). She is married to harpsichordist Dongsok Shin, and they have three children.

Friday, December 31, 2010

Time to sing with Claudio

Only 1 days away from our Vespers sing-along. Can't wait! Here's a video from last year's performance:


Please join us! Saturday, Jan 1, 2011 at 5 pm. Immanuel Lutheran Church, 122 East 88th Street (corner of Lexington Avenue.

And Happy New Year!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Bye-bye Benedict

In summer 2009 Dongsok and I purchased an antique fortepiano (circa 1785) from a wonderful gentleman on the Upper West Side. Although the instrument was playing, we didn't feel it was living up to the potential sound it should be making. We had some initial work done on it by Marco DeLellis, piano restorer in Queens. It became clear from what he found and from what we researched on our European travels that the instrument was almost certainly made by Karl Benedict of Graz, Austria; probably had restorations in the 1940s and 1970s; and has a replacement the soundboard which likely dates from the 1940s work, with too much thickness and incorrect bridge placement.
So, today we shipped the piano back to Marco for a new soundboard of correct historical design, to match the soundboard on the other original Benedict pianos we have visited in Ptuj, Slovenia, and Ashburnham, Massachusetts.
In a few months, the Benedict piano will be back, ready for concerts!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Every week should be like this one

We've just finished concerts in Princeton and New York City, madrigals of Marenzio and Monteverdi. Oh what heaven. Such beautiful music...I only wish we could have done 10 performances instead of 2. Why aren't Monteverdi's Book 6 accompanied madrigals done more often? It's a big mystery to me. And Marenzio...he's on a different but equally lovely planet. Such flexibility with rhythm and text...

We had a wonderful plan: one 6-part madrigal, and many 5-part madrigals. Six singers. Oh, but then one got sick...then there were five...doesn't that sound like a children's song? (or maybe that back of the bus one about beer bottles????) We missed our Michael's lovely resonant tenor. But, in true trouper fashion, all the singers - and one instrumentalist/singer, who sang just as marvelously - pitched in to save the day. Each person was originally to have had one madrigal "off". Our rehearsal schedule was planned around various people arriving & leaving early. So, when it became essential that the singers all sing every number, we also had even less time to rehearse - can't rehearse a 5-part piece with 4 singers! In one piece, nearly everyone had to learn a new part. (I'm not saying which one.) Dear singers, you are all such good musicians and colleagues. Such a privilege to work with you all.

Check out the video below for a delectable taste of those fabulous Baci in Marenzio's Baci Soavi. In the words of one fan: "It was like listening to pure gold."

Update December 1, 2010 - A letter from a fan:
“The ARTEK concert at All Saints in Princeton was the best we heard this entire year. The selection of pieces on the program was most intriguing, and Marenzio was definitely a discovery for us. The playing of the instrumental parts – impeccable as always, but also done with finesse which was magnified by the lovely acoustics of this sanctuary. And then those two stunning voices! Laurie Heimes and Barbara Hollinshead were absolutely superb. I could not believe how well their voices blended, alone and together in perfect harmony, with all the details of musical intricacy and linguistic diction executed with utmost care. This is not to say that we did not savor the vocal ensemble as a whole. Those five-part and six-part madrigals were like an exquisite dish on a holiday platter. Well, what more can I say? Heartfelt thanks for a wonderful experience!” – Professor Karlfried Froehlich, Germany

Friday, October 29, 2010

ARTEK: Just girls this time

Last week we had a great time preparing a concert for Drew University. In order to fit rehearsals into everyone's schedules, we ended up rehearsing in Princeton, staying overnight there, and then traveling to Madison for the concert. (The ARTEK New Jersey tour...)

There were five of us - all girls. Maybe a first for ARTEK! Laurie Heimes & Barbara Hollinshead singing, Christa Patton on harp, guest Agnes Kallay on cello, and myself. Agnes told us that she'd been playing early music on cello since she was six with her father's ensemble in Hungary. (Maybe she should talk to my daughters. Six!!! And they complain. I didn't bug them to play until they were, oh, at least TEN. I think.)

We had the most wonderful rehearsals in Marvin Preston's beautiful modern home...Japanese inspired contemporary architecture, with a soothing indoor/outdoor atrium. Alan Goodheart (our board member from Princeton) and Marvin rehearsed the part of the audience while we played. Definitely a different dynamic to rehearsing with all girls. We talk, we work, we laugh, we get on with it.

The next day we performed at Drew. Truly a wonderful concert hall. Please, someone, build us one JUST LIKE THAT in New York City! I am impressed because the entire Drew music faculty has shown up for the performance. This is not a usual thing. And, a nice size audience as well, who loved our program. (Well, what's not to love? we sounded great. If I may say so myself.) Oh yes, and several of us have lovely new concert gowns...check them out at our next performance!

Back home late, after dropping off Agnes in Montclair. Too wired to fall asleep right away, so Dongsok & I skip through Dancing With the Stars before crashing. I'm up at 4:45 am to go skate with my synchro ice team...more great women friends. I'm really pleased when I manage not to fall and break anything trying to skate on 3 hours sleep! Later, I'm reading a student-written story about the concert in the Drew paper. Although we got a sensational review, the student must have been snoozing at the pre-concert lecture: nearly everything she quotes about baroque music is 100% backwards from what we said! For example:
Barbara: "We don't strip the vibrato from our voices. Instead we occasionally use non-vibrato as a special effect, more often in the music from the early baroque."
Student: "They strip the vibrato from their voices".

I'm really looking forward to our Baci Soavi concert in 2 weeks. More great music with my wonderful colleagues.

Friday, October 15, 2010

You'd be cranky if you were 200 years old, too

This past week, my friend and colleague Elliot Gardner lent me his antique 1810 Clementi piano for an ARTEK house concert. I had played it in his home and thought, "what a nice instrument! It plays so well!".

When I informed Dongsok about this idea, he said, "How much does it weigh to move it? Does the stand come apart? Will it fit in the elevator?" Um...well, you know...details, details...I responded that I was SURE all of these would work out just fine.

Well. It looks small, but like most anything from the 19th century, even the early 19th century, it weighs a LOT. Oh yes. As in, he picked up his end, and I picked up my end and immediately thought "I am in big trouble". We did get it to the van, with several rests on the way (and it was only 20 feet away). The stand did not need to come apart; happily, it just fit into our van with the piano with marely a millimeter to spare. (And it did fit into the elevator, easily).

Back at my apartment I explored tuning the piano. All those pegs on the right side...a veritable forest. Very very very easy to get lost in that forest, and get the hammer on the wrong peg. I ended up tearing small pieces from my AM News free newspaper and sticking a piece of paper over each Bb. At least I could find a note a lot more easily that way. Putting the rubber mute in between the strings wasn't so hard on the bass notes, but on the higher notes, they were so close together that I had to close my eyes and feel with my fingers as I carefully and slowly slipped the mute from one string to the next. It took me an hour. I haven't taken an hour to tune an instrument since graduate school.

Some really cool things:
1) The piano still has its original key. (nervous, nervous, don't lose it NOW!)
2) it has a neat little folding music rack that works perfectly.
3) I have to admit, I always wonder, "who touched these keys 200 years ago?"
4) it fits a lotta notes into a really compact package!

Some not so cool things:
1) The pedal, when depressed, lifts the dampers. However, it also does something to the hammers, so you can't play very loud.
2) It fits a lotta notes into a really compact package. And if it gets cranky, those hammers start playing the next note as well. ooops.
3) Clearly the piano does not like being moved. There are tiny little wires attaching the dampers...they seeem to have a tendency to start wiggling around & being not where they should be, thereby causing funny buzzy sounds.

I called Elliot for some advice on keeping it working and he says, "well, usually it settles down in a day or so."

Day two. Mr. Clementi still has a some cranky hammers. However, he's staying in tune a bit better. Unfortunately some of those hammers are inching over to the wrong strings. Kind of reminds me of those wise guys in 4th grade who'd try to look over your shoulder on tests.

Day three. We moved the piano to the concert location. Now Mr. Clementi is REALLY cranky. I'm starting to sweat about actually playing the piece. High F has decided it doesn't really want to play. At all. This would not be so bad except that about half of our songs and two of my solos are in - you got it - F major. Yikes. I'm not sure how Elliot is getting any lawyering done at his real job while he fields calls from us. He's a patient guy! And ultimately, he and Dongsok both saved the day. Dongsok spent a half hour with the piano (with Elliot on the phone) and restores the piano to basic playability again. Aaaaaah. Elliot came a half hour early to the concert and likewise in a few minutes has tweaked a few more of the pesky notes & dampers. All is well!

My biggest fear, that the audience would find the instrument "kind of funny-sounding", was not realized. They told me after the concert that they loved the sound (like I do) and really enjoyed hearing it. I had the feeling Mr. Clementi was just the diva waiting all along for the audience to show up whereupon he would stop the nonsense and get down to the business of playing music!

Thank you, Elliot, for allowing me to adopt Mr. Clementi for a few days.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Settling in to a new season

It's the end of different the rhythm of my life is once the concerts, my teaching, kids at school, my skating, and all the other things we do with our lives get back onto track each fall.

We've already had four concerts now on Midtown Concerts. I played French baroque music on September 22. A video of the opening piece is posted. It's not the best vantage point, I admit! But we don't want the cameras to get in the way of the audience. Oh boy, and it was a warm day. As soon as I got out and sat down at the harpsichord, I thought, "way too hot, with this jacket on." But I couldn't quite face starting to strip off clothing in front of the audience...

Immanuel Lutheran, where we play, has turned out to exceed our expectations as the venue for Midtown Concerts. It's close to public transportation (just a block and a half from the Lex Ave 86th St. subway stop), the space is spacious but still small enough to be intimate, and the beautiful carvings on the front wall make a lovely backdrop for our performers. Best of all, the church pastor and secretary, Pastor Greg Fryer and Karen Rombey, attend most concerts, and Pastor Greg tells me how happy he is that the concerts have found a home here.

Even better, for the indefinite future we have been lent a fabulous two-manual Franco-Flemish harpsichord. Built by Dutch builder Titus Crijnen, the harpsichord is owned by Nicholas Bunning, and ARTEK patron who has welcomed us to his elegant uptown brownstone several times for benefit concerts. Not only does the harpsichord sound incredibly beautiful (I'm really enjoying practicing on it) but it also looks stunning. The oil painting on the lid and the extravagant outer decoration are very special. We are very fortunate. Thank you Nick!

I'll be playing the harpsichord again next Wednesday when Boston violinist Cynthia Freivogel plays Bach's C minor Sonata for violin and harpsichord. Can't wait.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Is the tape recorder on?

Back in the US again, I am off and running with the next ARTEK project: recording Monteverdi's complete madrigals from Book 5. I think this is the first time I ever got the photo for the cover (dawn in Mantua!) before a single note got recorded. We have three sessions with just singers for the a cappella madrigals, then one long day for all the madrigals requiring basso continuo and of course the gargantuan 9-part final madrigal. (It's so incredibly inefficient to have ONE piece that requires FIVE separate string parts, continuo, and NINE singers - when everything else is 5/6 singers and continuo. This pushes the total number of people involved in the recording up to 18.)

We quickly determine on the very first day that some of us require SmartWater whereas the rest of us seem quite content with [Dumb]Water. I shall not say who requires which! However, a certain amount of surreptitious experimentation seemed to be going on. We also quickly determine that the asiago cheese crackers are superb.

Several of the male singers ride out to New Jersey each day with me in my van. I learn some fascinating things about fishing (Ryland Angel), pickup trucks (Philip Anderson), and childhood experiences in exotic locales (Peter Becker). My colleagues are all such fascinating people!

Ellis Hilton, the concert hall manager, makes some videos of the sessions using the in-house recoding equipment. I have posted two of them to give a taste of the recording sessions. (This is not the recorded sound, just the video pickup). The entire situation with Ellis and Drew University is amazing after many years of 2 AM recordings in cold, drafty, and noisy churches - where many great takes were spoiled by a noise, overhead planes, or just plain exhaustion because of the late hour. Here, everything is usable, there are no sound issues, and the hall is easy to hear each other.

Dongsok is using his Miracle-360-degree-mike (aka "The Bowling Ball") setup. This allows us to be in a circle around the mike - the best scenario to see and hear each other. Dongsok keeps popping out of his backstage space to move someone's music stand 2 inches forwards or backwards for the perfect balance. His cheerful comments keep us going even when our energy is flagging! Until the day when three quarters of the way through recording one madrigal, he realizes the tape machines are not on, requiring us to start over...we forgive him, but from then on, our refrain to him is: "Is the tape recorder on?" (He is making noises about needing reading glasses to see the meters...ah, to be young again!)

I enjoy doing a reading of the poetry as the final preparation before starting to record each madrigal. Put aside obsessing about pitch, vowel shape, ensemble - think about a delicious poem that is even more intense when set to beautiful music.

The final day is long, with about twice as much music as any of the preceeding days, and lutes and harp to keep in tune. We have not performed the nine-part madrigal since 1997, so it has a longer time allotted. When we finish, we think longingly of champagne - but settle for SmartWater, before driving home.

You can pre-order ARTEK's CD of Monteverdi's Madrigals, Book V - click here

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Last Days

August 8-10, 2010

On Sunday, we made the trip to Eisenstadt to see the Esterhazy Palace, where Haydn worked for many years. We had a pleasant train ride followed by a long walk into town! Our first stop was the Bergkirche, a funny church where many of Haydn’s masses were first performed. But, we could not convince the caretaker there to let us see the organ up close in the loft. All we could see was the facade from downstairs. Even the entreaty that Dongsok had been the organ soloist on the just-released Naxos set of the complete masses with the Trinity Choir did not move him. We tried to see organs at the chapel on the other side of this church, and another church in town, but in both cases the public was blocked from going in far enough to even see the pipe facade. Sigh. Frustrating, to not be able to see or play these organs.

Next stop, the Palace, and the usual tourist tour which includes the big salon where Haydn’s very small orchestra played many of the symphonies; this is still used, though a bit changed, as a concert hall, and the sound is wonderful. It looked like it would easily hold 500 people.

A walk down the street led us to Haydn’s house, a second floor flat which is now a Haydn museum. A bit confusing as to whether certain items we are seeing are original or replicas, though. In one room, there is a Walter fortepiano very similar to our Walter copy. Dongsok crawled on the floor underneath it to look at where the knee levers were added some years after it was first built and have now been removed. There was a video loop running in the room of a pianist with modern technique playing the instrument....over and over again...This piano is said to have “most certainly been played by Haydn since it was in the area since the late 18th century”. Hm. In other words, no documentable connection to Haydn (and he expressed negative opinions of Walters in writing, while at the same time, trying to sell Schantzes), but someone probably owned it who lived within maybe 50 miles. Sure, maybe Haydn saw it sometime. If the prince ever let him out of the Palace, which is doubtful. We asked at the ticket desk about the original organ console from the Bergkirche, which according to the guidebooks was in the Haydn House. The lady looked confused and said it was no longer there, the books were perhaps old (we showed her the text in the books on sale right there). That was a pity too.; it looked a lot like the console of the Michaelerkirche organ from the pictures, and we would have both liked to see it. All in all, mixed impressions from our trip to Eisenstadt – nice that Haydn is getting his due (a pity that Claudio isn’t in Mantua!), but a fair amount of glossing over, and a lot of really interesting things unavailable to us.

Monday, our last day in Vienna, we visit the Kunsthistorisches Museum, thinking to take another look at the instruments there, but alas, although the internet lists the Kunsthistorisches Museum as open every day in August, the instrument collection is still closed on Mondays. A little shopping instead, a return visit to the Prater Amusement Park to ride the INCREDIBLY HIGH flying swings and race go-karts (I won, of course), and then a dinner with our American friends Chris and Katherine Sharp and their daughter Elizabeth at Vienna’s best-known Wiener Schnitzel restaurant (the schnitzel entrees are twice the size of a large dinner plate!) and coffee and Viennese pastries afterwards. A lovely end to a wonderful trip.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Organs and Ferris Wheels in Vienna

August 6-7, 2010 Friday I practiced several hours on the Sieber organ, at the Michaelerkirche, right across from the Hofburg, where my recital would be the following day. I had performed on this organ previously, so I thought I remembered it – but I had forgotten several key points not immediately apparent from the published stop list. Mainly, that the apparently two-octave pedal was in fact just one octave with duplications. The lower short octave had C, F, D, G, E, A Bb, B; the next note was the same C repeated, then C#, D repeated, Eb, E repeated, F repeated, Fsharp, G repeated, G#, and A repeated. So in total there was just 12 notes all in the same octave. Hm! I had been planning to play the final bass parts of the Sweelinck Ricercare here on pedal, but had to revise that somewhat since I was missing the upper pedal octave. Here, the organ action was a bit heavy and deep, understandable since the case for the great is located in two pieces substantially far away from the console (the original design from 1714). The depth meant that some intervals of a tenth which I can often easily play were not quite possible here on this organ. I spent some time re-fingering and adjusting. The organ there is nevertheless a fabulous sounding instrument. The church has a lengthy acoustic and the sounds of the organ blend together in an extremely satisfying way. It was yet another completely different type of historical organ, though, with a typical South German giant variety of 8’ stops on the great (principal, flute which was more like a gentle principal, quintadena, salicional, and gamba). The third manual consisted of 4 stops of pipes that were located within the organ console itself – like a small continuo organ just for the choir. What a brilliant idea! Perfect for the choir to hear, but not very loud for the congregation below. And the arrangement of the loft, with the console in the center, pipes to either side, allowing for plenty of space for choral risers and additional space for instruments, was perfect for church masses with orchestra. In fact, the church’s string bass was leaning in the corner, ready to be called into service (with its 18th century case , too). Meanwhile, Dongsok made the interesting discovery (from bronze plaques on the wall) that the Michaelerkirche was the place where the first performance of (parts of) the Mozart Requiem took place, on Dongsok’s birthday (five days after Mozart’s death) on December 10, 1791. Later that day, we visited the keyboard instruments in the Technisches Museum. (We skipped the important collection in the Kunsthistoriches Museum since we’ve both been there just last year). We were amused to see that the (perhaps) Walter fortepiano action that was displayed separately in a lucite case had an important element displayed backwards, and lying down instead of standing up! They had interesting instruments, but some were roped off and impossible to get close enough even to read the accompanying placard. Still, that museum is a great place to visit. Other displays include things like washing machines from the past 100 years, exhibits on ship building, toys, cars, modern biotechnology...I’ve been there twice and have only seen a small fraction of the exhibits. That evening, we cooked a sort-of Mexican meal for Augusta’s daughter Francesca – her request for her “last meal at home”. Francesca had a year in America as an AFS transfer student, out in Washington State, where she and her friends hung out at the local Taco Bell every night. We tried to replicate a Taco Bell burrito, but I’m afraid ours might actually have been better! Saturday, some rest in the morning, then more practice and my concert at 8 pm. The last performance – I was sad to be finished. Following the performance, the audience was invited to the organ loft, where I explained (in English, my German is nowhere near enough) about the organ, its special characteristics, and my choice of program. The organist of the church, Manuel Schuen, and his girlfriend Marina Ragger, were very welcoming to me and complimentary. I hope I will be able to play there again many times! After the concert, Dongsok and I treated ourselves to a ride on the giant Ferris Wheel in Vienna’s Prater Amusement Park. Although it moved slowly, it was a real thrill to be above the city at night, looking down at all the sights. A beautiful end to a nice day.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

If it’s Tuesday it must be Slovenia.

August 3-5, 2010

Augusta was in charge of driving, thankfully, for our scheduled trip to Slovenia. We left after lunch for the three hour trip, pausing to eat strudel 2/3rds of the way there. (Very important). We arrived at our guesthouse in Ptuj (that’s unfortunately pronounced like something my 12 year old son might say, puh-too-ee) and proceeded to eat, where our Slovenian friend Darja Koter and her husband Andre joined us. Darja is a fascinating woman. She started as a music teacher, but then trained herself to became the curator of the musical instrument museum in Ptuj, and published an important guide to all the instruments. Now she’s writing a study of Slovenian music iconography. With her husband, who works in shipping, she has traveled all over the world. A truly cosmopolitan woman! We met her in June in New York City. Now, in Slovenia she gave us a world class experience – beginning with educating us about Slovenian wines at dinner that night. Good thing we could walk back to our rooms!

On Wednesday, she had made the appointment at the Ptuj Castle, where the instrument collection is located. We were treated like visiting royalty: the alarms were turned off for the instruments, we were allowed to play and touch anything we liked. Dongsok was on a particular mission. He had ordered Darja’s guidebook to the collection way back last fall when he thought our newly-purchased antique piano was possibly by Ferdinand Hofmann. When he received the book, he turned the page and saw another piano that resembled ours even more closely, a Karl Benedict piano. Since that moment, he has been trying to see all the Karl Benedict pianos existing in the world. There is one at the Frederick Collection in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, which he has visited twice, and now this one in Slovenia. There is another one formerly located in Austria somewhere; Darja knew the name of the person who had it ten years ago, but when he contacted the person, the owner of a piano restoration company in Austria, he had passed away and his son has so far been unable to find out to whom the piano was sold. There is a rumor of another in Austria, but Dongsok has no leads on that one yet.

Dongsok spent three hours photographing and measuring the instrument. The cabinetry restorer from the museum assisted him and kept him company; he had worked on the case of the Benedict. Augusta and I spent two hours touring the castle and the other collections there of art, furniture, tapestries, armaments, and local history. (Did you know that in the 17th century you could BUY a castle and an earldom? Just win a few battles for the emperor! Even if you’re just the second son of the third wife of a minor Scottish noble.) We also played the small 16th century processional organ in the collection, after figuring out how to plug in the modernized wind system. The museum people had thought it was “too loud”, but after demonstrating the 4’ flute alone, then adding the three upper stops one by one, they realized that it indeed sounded beautiful, though a larger room would be better for hearing it. We also tried the Hoffman piano, which needs some restoration work, and several early 19th century pianos, all interesting.

Following our museum visit, we were invited to dinner at Darja’s home, with her husband, mother-in-law, and nephew. We had a lively conversation, reverting to Italian or German with Darja’s mother-in-law. Darja introduced us to some fabulous Slovenian dishes: one, a special cured ham; another was the dessert of vanilla ice cream and pumpkin seed oil. Oh my! Totally delicious, even though it sounds a bit strange. And lots (and lots) of Slovenian wine. We did manage to walk back to the hotel, with some difficulty.

Thursday, we visited the Ptuj Domincan Monastery museum with its collection of Roman statuary, then traveled back to Vienna. Augusta’s daughter was leaving for University in Amsterdam on Saturday, and there was much for Augusta to do.

Monday, August 2, 2010

On the rails again

August 2, 2010

Another long travel day. We drove back to Bologna to return the car, but when we are literally one block from the car rental, we are turned back by policemen saying “there is a manifestation”. Manifestation? Is that a riot, or, terrorist attack, or what? We went around in circles for about 20 minutes. Finally I parked the car about 5 blocks away and let Dongsok walk on foot to the agency. He returned with driving directions and we managed to get to the rental office this time. It seems the “manifestation” was a commemoration of the 30th anniversary of a terrorist bombing attack that killed 85 people. Terrible. The trains were running again by the time of our booked trip to Vienna, through Verona, Innsbruck & Salzburg.

We have learned our lesson about trains: with all our luggage (still hauling too many CDs, having failed to sell many in either Italy or Switzerland, unlike Holland), we booked first class tickets for just 10 Euros more each, and had spacious quiet seating with plenty of luggage storage room. And a great meal on the Austrian train between Salzburg and Vienna. Serious bread and goulash!

Our friend Augusta Campagne, a Dutch harpsichordist who has taught for many years now at the University in Vienna, met us at the train station with her car and brought us to her apartment. How lucky we are to have so many friends in Europe to visit with! We had fun catching up; she has a daughter similar in age to ours, and we’ve “traded” daughters several times over the past few years.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

R & R in the City of the Gonzaga Princes

July 29-August 1, 2010

The next morning, I confess a certain amount of – shall I say? – EXHAUSTION had definitely set in. Every time I go to Europe, I feel like there’s so much to see that I can’t stop. Now, at the two-week mark, we found that we needed to slow down a bit.

We spent Thursday visiting the Gonzaga Palace in Mantua. To walk where Monteverdi walked, to see what he saw, through the halls where he and his singers entertained the nobility – ah! However, it is a huge disappointment that hardly a mention can be found of our favorite composer, much less music. No Monteverdi music on the audio guides, no Monteverdi tea towels in the giftshop – nada. Some internet searching & queries to our friend Grantn Herreid via e-mail clear up the confusion over which Sala degli Specchi was the one where he performed frequently (not the one with the teeny mention on the sign, for sure; that was the 18th century Sala degli Specchi). In fact, we had to miss a big chunk of the palace because the man guarding the entryway (Dongsok & I nicknamed him “the troll” for reasons evident if you saw him) would not allow access. When we asked him directly, he considered it, then said, “no.” Downstairs at the reception desk, the polite lady sighed and made mention of cutbacks, not enough staffing, so wouldn’t have been so hard to take except that every once in a while the troll would let someone into the forbidden part. Grrrr. However, it’s true, there’s hardly anyone in Mantua; where are all the tourists?

Friday, we visited the Palazzo Te on the other side of Mantua. This would best be described as “the pleasure palace” – clearly the place where the Duke had all the good parties with his mistress & decorated it in quite, um, erotic fashion. I kept thinking, “but surely THIS is where Monteverdi would have been summoned to entertain the guests with all those delicious madrigals about love?” Let’s hope there’s more documents to be found.

At 7 pm, we drove to the far side of the bridge. Mantua is located on a large lake; all of our Italian friends were horrified to hear that we were actually going to stay there, crying “but the mosquitoes!” Well Mantua didn’t have any more mosquitoes than the rest of Italy, but I must say the view across the lake as you enter the city on the principal bridge is just stunning. So part of our stay was devoted to finding the perfect picture of Mantua from the bridge to use for the cover of our next ARTEK CD of Monteverdi madrigals. We thought sunset would be particularly spectacular. Ah no! The buildings were in shadow, the reflection in the water non-existent. It was evident that we must bite the bullet and rise for a sunrise photo shoot. Sigh....

In the evening, we searched the internet for some info on Mantua restaurants. There didn’t seem to be many that we could find by just walking around, apart from a few touristy ones right near the main square. But, we found a real gem: on a tiny back street, a little restaurant with a beautiful garden in the back with space for about 8 tables, run by a man (the waiter), his wife (the cook, who we could see preparing everything through her kitchen window), and their daughter (assistant to Mom & Dad). They served seafood, and it was simply the best Italian food we have had anywhere.

Saturday, Dongsok with some difficulty roused me at 5:30 am & we made it to the far side of the bridge by 6:15, just 10 minutes after the beginning of sunrise. (This lateness is my fault, I fully admit it! If only he could drive a sick shift!) The lighting is perfect, he took about a hundred pictures, and we also admired the slugs and other fauna of the river shore. (Why is it so many members of my family are fascinated by slugs??? Ugh.)

Later on Saturday, we drove to Sabbioneta, where we see the 16th century theater that is preserved there. The theater was not used for opera, but still gives a great idea of what theater was like in the early 17th century. It seats only about 150, in semi-circular risers; there’s a gallery above the seating, for the use of the Duke and his special guests, and perhaps a few musicians also. The stage was highly raked, with a permanent set of a street of buildings (not the original set which was destroyed, but a reconstruction of it).

In the late afternoon, on the way back from Sabbioneta, I cannot tell a lie, we visited the Mantua Outlet Mall! What woman could pass up an opportunity to shop Italian clothing at outlets! Ha. So, after visiting a few stores, most of which had clothing to fit my size 0 daughters, I finally find a store in which there were plenty of size L. Even XL. I tried on a few things, realizing with amazement that size L seemed huge! What was going on here? Surely I had not moved down to a size M or even S after eating giant dishes of pasta for days and days? The cashier unfortunately burst my bubble by telling me that this was a store for large women. Yes, and the store for large women started at size 8 American (I’m not kidding!!!) which was small, so 12-14 was size M. Oh. No wonder those M’s fit so well. I purchased a few lovely tops, one a T-shirt with the typical Mantuan salamander – the insignia of the Gonzagas – a great memento of our trip. We capped off the evening with more fabulous Italian seafood at our favorite restaurant.

Sunday, inertia set in, and we couldn’t quite decide what to do. Eventually, we realized maybe we didn’t actually want to do ANYTHING involving churches, museums, palaces, or other sights. So we rented bikes & tooled around the Mantua lake, having a picnic lunch. Sounds idyllic, right? It was, up until I got a flat tire...then we walked 45 minutes with our bikes back to the hotel. (This was the only day we actually got hot the entire trip; the weather was perfectly nice on a bike with a good breeze but walking in direct sun, not so much.) We spent the rest of the day recovering.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

How to spend your birthday: playing early pianos!

July 28, 2010

The next morning (my birthday! I’m not saying how old!!), we were up early to catch a train to Bologna. We had just heard the previous evening by e-mail that we had indeed secured an appointment with Fernanda Giulini, director of the fabulous Giulini collection of historical pianos, for 6 pm that evening – at the Villa Medici , in Briosco, north of Milan. So, we had decided at rather the last minute to book a car rental from Bologna, since our hotel was in Mantua and it was clear the Italian train system was not going to get us to Briosco by 6 pm. (Apparently Mantua was sidestepped in the 19th century by the growing Italian train system; you can get to Mantua by train, but allow a few hours). Lucky me, I got to drive the whole way, since we could only afford a manual shift and I’m the only one who (sort of) can drive manual. We drove first to Mantua, finding our hotel after some difficulty – if only they would actually put a sign on the street, it would help so much!! – and then set off for the Villa Medici. We made it there by 5:50, only minutes away from our appointed time. (Dongsok is faint with excitement by this moment, you must realize). The Villa is surrounded by imposing walls and after some searching we find an unlikely looking gate with an intercom. After some moments, we are greeted by a nice man who says they weren’t expecting us. What??! Phone conversations. It seemed Mrs Giulini expected us at 6 pm in her OFFICE in Milan. (We had not realized that a portion of the collection – the harpsichords, mostly – are in Milan at the offices of her Italian fashion company.) Horrors! Big, big English-to-Italian e-mail misunderstanding. However, more phone conversation ensues, and soon Pasquale, our greeter, tells us that Mrs. Giulini is making a big exception, and he will show us the collection. What a nice man! He took us into the Villa, where room after fabulous room contained pianos, from early pianos by Walter, Schantz, and Graf to more modern late 19th century examples (which we politely admired but except for the Erard on which I could not resist playing a few bars of Chopin, passed by). And surprise, there were also three fantastic organs, two 4’ ones and one small 8’ organ; I really liked all three of them. There were three Schantzes, all slightly different; two Walters, one very much like our Walter copy; and two Grafs, one identical to the lovely Graf owned by Brooke Allen, who loaned it to Montclair State University (where I teach) for the past year. The Grafs were amazingly easy to play; it confirmed my suspicion that Mr. Allen’s Graf needs “playing in”, having been just newly restored two years ago, and infrequently played so far.

After an hour and a half, we were at the end of our tour; Dongsok purchased several of the books published by the foundation (and I thought we were slowly emptying our suitcases of heavy CDs – only to replace them with really books!) and we said our goodbye to Pasquale, who had chatted with me in fractured French-Italian throughout the tour. (We both kept switching languages in an attempt to be mutually understood! My brain was aching. It’s always surprising to me how I seem to remember more French than I think I should, since most of my musical life is Italian.) Some food, then a long two-and-a-half hour journey back to Mantua. I really should get glasses suitable for night driving one of these days.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A rest, and a folding harpsichord

July 27, 2010

Saying goodbye to Giuseppe, we arrived by train in Rimini, the ultimate Italian resort town, I fear. After checking in to our hotel, our friend Enrico Gatti picked us up and we traveled to the hills outside of Rimini, where he and his wife Elena are renovating a historic farmhouse for their family. It seems the Italian authorities have so far taken three years to approve their architectural designs! My builder father would be appalled. Enrico cooked us a magnificent 3 course lunch, after which we played with the children, took a walk in the fields, and – oh yes! – played Enrico’s folding harpsichord. That’s a harpsichord that packs up for travel by breaking into three pieces rather like a jigsaw puzzle and ends up in a compact travel case with wheels. One of the best of this type that I’ve ever played! Enrico was also very happy about his new eighteenth-century violin, which he says means he can stop looking for the perfect violin, at least for now.

In the evening, we took a walk on the beach (amid thousands of empty beach chairs, very rigidly assigned during the day to your particular hotel), ate pizza, and drank Italian wine.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Organs, organs, and more organs

July 26

The next morning, we set out in Giuseppe’s car to visit other Italian organs. Unfortunately we were unable to show Dongsok the fantastic 16th century organ in Trevi that I performed on last December, because the church where it is located is now a museum, and like many museums, was closed on Mondays. Sad, because I really love that organ and would have liked to play it again. We went on to Foligno, where Andrea was working on his latest restoration. The Foligno organ (from 1749) was quite exceptional. A small earlier organ was incorporated into a newly built organ (functioning as a sort of “echo” organ, since the pipes are located behind the keydesk & totally blocked) – so it was a rare two-manual Italian organ. Wonderful sounds, and since it was a later instrument, some interesting reed stops. The second manual makes some interesting repertoire possibilities: Andrea begged me to play Mozart on this organ the next time I come to Italy! Hm. An intriguing thought! After lunch, Giuseppe, Dongsok & I traveled to Serra San Quirico, where we saw two restored organs; one from 1676, exceptionally beautiful case and also a stunningly beautiful small church, with a typically beautiful double principal 8. We met the local priest, who then took us to another church with an 19th century organ, also very nice. (He then treated us to aperitifs at the local bar, where everyone in the town seemed to stop by to greet him.) A long day and many organs, but what pleasure.

I must also mention that all three cities – Leonessa, Foligno, and Serra San Quirico – were located amidst some breathtaking scenery. I had no idea this area of central Italy was quite so mountainous; I had spent plenty of time previously exploring hill towns like Orvieto and other Tuscan & Umbrian cities, but these areas in Lazio, Abruzzo and Marche had stunning vistas. And the colors of the landscapes in Italy is unlike anywhere else I’ve been, just like Willem-Jan had said they were.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Fingers of steel

July 25 6:45 am: arrival at the Orte train station, just north of Rome. Our great friend Giuseppe Schinaia made the ultimate sacrifice of getting up at 5:30 am in order to pick us up at the train station and drive us the hour and a half further to Leonessa, where I would be playing a 6 pm concert. (Not without an intermediate stop for a good cup of Italian coffee!). Leonessa was a sleepy little town with two churches; after some scouting, we determined which one was the correct one and found the sacristan who escorted us all up to the organ. The organ had beautiful sounds, restored by the excellent organ builder Andrea Pinchi some years ago. Only problem: the action was HEAVY. I mean, Mack truck-finger workout heavy. Oh boy! I only had the afternoon to practice, which was maybe just as well, since if I’d spent two or three days playing that keyboard, my fingers might be in permanent spasm. (I think I noticed it more because of the fabulously light actions in both Zeerijp and Sion). A short rest mid-afternoon, and I was ready for the concert at 6 pm. Dongsok, too, had his work cut out for him. The stop pulls were equally heavy. In fact, there was some foot-bracing against the wall of the organ in order for him to get enough leverage to PULL the darn things out when needed! The concert nevertheless went well, although at the end of the second to last piece – all fast notes – I had a moment of “I think my fingers just died”. But the last piece has about 6 minutes of slow playing before things heat up, so I made it through! After the concert, Andrea treated all of us and two of his friends to a wonderful dinner in a local restaurant featuring wild boar and other game meats; the antipasto platter was amazing, then somehow I made it through two more huge courses. Am I crazy or have portions in Italy gotten American-sized in the past couple years? I remember very reasonable pasta servings, but have to admit that every time this trip I ordered a pasta dish, it was plenty for both Dongsok and myself. I asked some friends how the Italian women stay so petite (more on this later!) and their answer was -–"they don’t eat”. Well, I guess that works, sort of...

Saturday, July 24, 2010

I am in organ heaven.

July 22-24, 2010 Thursday morning we take a local train to Sion, Switzerland where the venerable concert organizer, Mr Maurice Wenger meets us at the train station. His English is not so good & my French is pretty vile, but we manage to make ourselves understood. We are staying with my friend Irma Zenklusen, the sister of Ernst Bucher, an amateur organist and ARTEK fan who I’ve known for 12 years since my St. Francis days, I have stayed with Irma once before, the first time I visited Sion, and she is a lovely host. She cooked and fed us with great attention, and (scandalously) we all enjoyed a bottle of dessert wine each evening! What a kind and lovely woman, with many children and grandchildren that she would visit in the Alps immediately after our visit.

We are picked up and driven to the Valere Basilica by Madame Veronique Dupuis, one of three organists of the Basilica. She turns out to be a woman after my own heart, interested in historical organs and early music, raising 2 children with her husband, and managing (superbly) the concerts for Mr. Wenger who is largely retired now. She also does not speak much English, so I get a lot of practice in my French trying to converse with her. I think maybe she understood most of what I said!

The Basilica is on top of a small mountain at the edge of the small city of Sion. We parked about midway up, which is as far as one can drive (Veronique’s driving up and down the winding, rocky road is amazing!) and walked the rest of the way. The organ is incredible: a small "bird’s nest" case perched high on the back wall, reached by a winding stone stair at the side (lit by fairy-lights). At the top of the stairs, one enters a sort of attic behind the back wall of the church where the bellows are located. These have been recently re-restored, and are now capable of being hand-pumped as well as the usual motor to provide wind. Dongsok & I tried both methods, eventually deciding that he would be better off pulling stops than pumping for an hour. Also, Veronique showed him how to make a "tremulant" by hand, by gently shaking one of the bellows as I played. With some practice, he gets it just right, and the effect is a bit like an Italian voce humana: beautiful.

The organ is small but oh-so-wonderful. All of the pieces I had chosen work perfectly, and the keyboard is again light and responsive. There are 9 stops; Veronique showed us the 4 stops which made up the medieval Blokwerk in the oldest part of the organ. The sound is amazingly loud and aggressive; Dongsok, standing to turn pages, said he might need earplugs if I played any really long pieces. (I only use the Blokwerk for the short first piece, the Kotter Kochersperger Spanioler). The organ is really a 4-foot organ; all the Renaissance pieces I would normally play on an 8’ stop are best just with a 4’ stop, of which there is a beautiful flute and a principal. The piece I normally play at 4’ works fine on just the 2’. The lone 8’ flute somehow catapults us into the 17th century, and I avoided it except for the later repertoire on my program (for this program, the late repertoire was the four sixteenth-century pieces by Gabrieli, Storace, Scheidemann, and Sweelinck. Anything later than about 1650 would be pretty strange to play, I think, though the tuning is sadly not quarter-comma meantone but a compromise baroque temperament). The lone 19th century stop, a 16’ for the pedal, I ignored except for the last note of the final piece.

I am in heaven. I have been playing the really early organ repertoire of the 15th & 16th centuries for many years now, but I feel like my life has been waiting to get to this exact point at this very moment. The music and the organ are a perfect match. Not only that, the concert paid a real fee, and Mr. Wenger treated me as the honored artist, with a special luncheon party, a dressing room (of sorts), an elegant reception following the concert, in short the same treatment as colleagues like Gustav Leonhardt who had performed on the series in the past. America seemed very far away.

Dongsok and I found time in between practicing to tour the castle exhibits, visit a historical house in the center of Sion, and also to climb the neighboring little mountain on top of which was the ruined, romantic-looking castle of Valere. The 15th and 16th centuries feel very close in this town.

I was sad to play the final notes of the recital; it meant my time with this organ had come to an end. At the reception, Mr. Wenger gave a toast praising the concert, and saying that he hoped I would return (YES YES YES). That’s a first. Later we heard from Ernst Bucher, who traveled from Kreuzlingen to attend the concert, that Mr. Wenger had been very pleased indeed, saying that I had played repertoire really well-suited to the instrument, and had not played too loudly throughout as many organists apparently tend to do on that organ. It seems that I will be invited to return in five years. One last surprise: Dongsok was given a small fee for stop-pulling and page-turning (which was greater than my performer fee for either of the next two concerts!).

After the concert, we make our way to the station, where we catch an 8:15 pm train to Milan, connecting to the night train to Rome. I had asked Mr. Bucher to book this train for me; fortunately, he said "if you must perform again the following day, you must go first class." The Swiss train to Milan, in first class, was a revelation after all the trains we had taken previously. Dongsok and I looked at each other and said, "why haven’t we been taking first class trains all along!" Of course, the Italian overnight first-class compartment was not up to the Swiss standards. In this case, I was extremely grateful to have the highest level because if this was the highest level, what would be less? We slept well, though; I always enjoy sleeping on a night train, and we had our very own compartment, which was fun.