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.

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.

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