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, 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.

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