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.

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