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.

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.