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.

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.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

More trains...

July 21, 2010

Today is another travel day – we take the Thalys train through Paris to Geneva, Switzerland. A long day of switching trains; Paris is just a half hour at the train terminal, no chance to see much and anyways we’re dragging too much luggage with us, even after leaving one suitcase in Holland. We arrive in Geneva late afternoon and find our hotel, after which we meet with my friend Fabrice, who takes us to see a historical copy Renaissance organ in a Geneva suburb. Interesting – split sharps & meantone, so one can really play all the Frescobaldi pieces. We also see another organ, managing to pull the stop we notice only too late the organist has said "ne toucher pas!" – disconnecting the tracker stop pull; after a few anxious moments, we manage to reconnect the tracker, breathe a sigh of relief, and decide we’ve seen enough! The temperature inside the small churches is sweltering – not much ventilation – so we call it a day & enjoy a lovely meal with Fabrice we feel we well deserved after a long day of travel. (Studiously avoiding even THINKING about the exchange rate with Swiss francs! Geneva makes NYC look like a real bargain.)

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Books, books, and more books...

July 20

Our visit in Antwerp began with several hours in the newly-reopened Vleeshuis Museum, where we had arranged to be able to play the Dulcken 18th century harpsichord on display there. It was a fabulous instrument; Dongsok, Geert & I all had some time with it, though I regretted that I had not been able to bring yet more music in order to have some 18th-century harpsichord pieces with me. The museum was not crowded and after playing for about an hour, the director asked if we wanted to see "other instruments in the attic". Sure! We were escorted up to the top floor of the Vleeshuis – and this being an ancient building, just seeing the old rafters and brickwork of some 500 years ago was fascinating in itself – where we found shelving with wind instruments, some random keyboard instruments, pictures not selected for display, all kinds of items. We roamed around the entire space, feeling incredibly privileged to really see everything. Many interesting wind instruments, as well as the original bottom of the Dulcken (replaced in a restoration some years ago, but fortunately saved) where we got a close look at the maker’s marks.

We also visited the Cathedral, with its Rubens exhibit - Dongsok claiming he dislikes Rubens, but we dragged him in kicking and screaming anyways. He liked the Marten de Vos painting for the altar of the chapel of the Guild of Saint Luke’s, the painter’s guild, the best –a painting of Saint Luke painting a portrait of the Virgin and Child. Much of the art on display had been lost to other countries through later wars, but had been reassembled in the Cathedral for this special exhibit.

We spent the entire afternoon in the Museum Plantin-Moretus, one of the best exhibits we saw our entire trip. The museum is the entire house & bookprinting workshop of the Plantin-Moretus family, preserved in whole since the beginning of the business in the early 1500s. Do not miss this museum if you go to Antwerp – they still have the original typefaces, printing machines, and of course many original books from the beginning of bookprinting. It was truly fascinating to see evidence of the proofreading and corrections that were an integral part of the process (being someone who looks frequently at facsimiles of old music prints, and having to determine if a typo was possibly made). How amazing to realize that in the 1500s, Bibles were printed there in five languages: Hebrew, Latin, Greek, Aramaic, and Syriac.(And one of Plantin’s daughters was the proofreader for Hebrew). Three hours was not enough to really see everything on offer there.

Dinner was Belgian food outdoors on the square in front of the Cathedral. I felt it was obligatory to have Belgian mussels, which I remembered from my trip to Bruges in 1979. I was not disappointed!

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Arp Schnitger organ in Noordbroeck

July 19, 2010

Willem-Jan and Leny accompanied us in the morning to the church in Noordbroeck, about 40 minutes southeast of Zeerijp. My friend Peter Westerbrink, organist there, met us and let us in to play the church’s fabulous Schnitger organ. This instrument, which is one of the most famous Schnitger organs surviving, is to be the location of my next CD. My appointment was to spend 3 hours there trying out various pieces to find which repertoire I would record. I had some music from the generation just past Scheidemann (Tunder, Weckmann), some Bach, some Krebs, some Boehm, Leyding, some other random things. Tunder & Weckmann: no. I missed meantone tuning too much, and the Noordbroeck organ’s division of stops between great organ and positiv just seemed not quite right. Bruhns, Bach, Leyding, Boehm...ahhhhh....I still will have to decide eventually which Bach to play, not an easy decision; maybe the E minor Prelude & Fugue...My biggest worry had been the pedal board. In previous visits, I had found the pedals difficult to negotiate. Much larger compass than the Zeerijp/17th century type organ, but nothing like anything modern I’d find in the US either. If I could not manage the pedals, I would have to choose repertoire very carefully. But, no worries: Peter Westerbrink had told me "three hours practice, and you will be fine". He was right. I could manage anything by the time I left. That was encouraging!

After the organ visit, we had a picnic lunch, then caught the train in Zuidbroeck, saying goodbye to Willem-Jan and Leny, such good friends. We will miss Willem’s informative commentary (he’s a retired history professor) on all aspects of local Dutch history and church history – as well as the wonderful stories of his youth! He told us some hair-raising stories about living through World War II – stories of humanity on the part of both Dutch and Germans as well as some of the inhumanity that was a sad part of the local history.

Our train journey was a bit lighter load, having left our largest suitcase behind with 100 CDs for the Zeerijp church to sell in its gift shop. Still...not as light a load as one would like. Three trains and a tram later, we arrived in Antwerp at the home of our friends Ellen Delahanty and Geert van Gele.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Happiness is a wonderful meantone organ...

July 16-18

The next morning, we obtained the keys to the organ in Zeerijp and I began practicing for my recital. Although I’d tuned my virginal in short octave tuning to practice in New York City, the octave width was still quite different (a bit wider) on that instrument, so some serious practice was in order. However, the Zeerijp organ is so easy to play, the action so light and responsive, and the organ not so huge that one cannot hear what one is doing, that all went very well. I can only wish that I could play this organ every day of my life, not just on these trips. Dongsok made another few clips for YouTube, and tested all his camera and recording setups (that’s his version of really fun things to do).

The church in Zeerijp has an amazing acoustical liveliness, some noticeable reverb yet with extreme clarity that Willem-Jan tells me is a hallmark of the Benedictine churches built some 800 years ago. They knew what they were doing, for sure. The church feels alive, with golden sun streaming through the windows, and the organ is like the jewel that glitters in its light. I am blessed to be here, happy, and certain that playing this organ is exactly what I am meant to do by whoever is up there in the heavens looking down at me.

On Sunday, I met Dennis Wub, who comes to tune the reeds and check over the organ before my 4 pm recital. I point out the flute low A which is not in tune & not speaking clearly. He tells me that the problem is corrosion in the pipe foot, a problem of acids in the air that attack the metal, and that the organ will need some major repairs within the next few years. Sad news, indeed: money is as tight in Holland as in the US, with the recession equally apparent there. It will be hard to find the funds to help with these repairs.

My concert went well. Playing the organ in Zeerijp is like a conversation with an old friend who I know very well, after 2 CDs and many previous concerts. Dongsok made a video as well as turning pages and pulling stops in the final piece, Sweelinck’s Ricercare, which requires at least 5 stops changes every time I play it. (In Europe, one always has a registrant, or stop-puller/page turner; none of this American silliness about "console technique" to heroically push buttons while you are playing! As a performer, I can concentrate 100% on the music...not on the mechanics of changing the sounds.)

After the concert, we went to the nearest small city, Appingedam, a charming place known for the way the kitchens of houses hang out over the canals, and enjoyed a dinner of Dutch-Indonesian-Chinese food with Willem-Jan and Leny.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Planes, trains, and more trains...

July 15, 2010

After our flight across the ocean on Virgin Atlantic, we landed at Heathrow. From there, the Heathrow Express to Paddington, London Underground to St Pancras, Eurostar to Brussels, 3 Dutch trains to Groningen, then finally the small local commuter train to beautiful downtown Loppersum, 2 km from the tiny hamlet of Zeerijp where my first concert was located. All this with 3 suitcases (one giant one consisting entirely of 150 CDs), Dongsok’s incredibly heavy backpack, a duffle bag, and my weighty New York Skating Club shoulder bag with all the things like concert music, organ shoes, Monteverdi scores, bunches of computer printed travel documents, umbrella, coat, and other things I could not possibly afford to lose in baggage. Our first challenges of the trip came in figuring out on each train where we might stow our luggage. Heathrow Express: no big deal. Underground in morning rush hour London: not so fun. Eurostar: do-able. Dutch trains: completely impossible, leading to much constant re-arranging and heavy lifting onto overhead racks. Dongsok was stopped by security going onto the Eurostar. Apparently, removing his (large heavy) laptop from his backpack was not enough. They asked him to take out all his electronics. I watched incredulously as out came a video camera, two regular cameras, Zoom recorder, GPS, computer hard drives, two mike stands, and enough cables and converters to power a small third-world country. After turning on each item to satisfy the security inspectors, he packed it all back up. No wonder he looked tired – between the two suitcases he was managing and the backpack, he was moving around a total weight of 150 pounds.
Our Dutch friends, Willem-Jan and Leny, met us in Loppersum and we drove to their house in Zeerijp, where we enjoyed a lovely stay with them for the next 3 days. The best part: we left all the hot weather of New York City behind us. Holland was cool; occasionally a sprinkle of rain, sometimes some bright sun, but always comfortable.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

In the Beginning

July 10, 2010

The UPS man stopped my husband outside on the sidewalk. "I’ve got a BIG delivery for you." Oh yes, he wasn’t kidding...ten giant 100-count cartons of CDs, a small mountain of a pile in the entry of our apartment. (Those who have visited the Toth-Shin residence know that the entry room functions as a garage, storing stray harpsichords & pianos, seats from our car, boxes of items coming to/from our storage place, miscellaneous flotsam from 3 children.) Finally here: my newest CD, organ music, mostly from the Renaissance, played on two historic Dutch organs. Just in time, since in a few days, my husband and I were to set off on a four-week journey to play concerts and visit historic keyboards in six different European countries. (How many CDs fit into a 23-kilo weight limit suitcase??)