Bartolomeo Cristofori and the Piano

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Bartolomeo Cristofori in 1726

Bartolomeo Cristofori in 1726

The names that come to mind at the mention of the Italian Renaissance are the likes of the House of Medici, Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo. Few, however, know the name Bartolomeo Cristofori, an accomplished craftsman who lived and worked during that era. You may not know his name, but you do know his greatest invention – the “harpsichord with loud and soft,” better known today as the piano.

Little is known of Cristofori’s family or childhood, other than that he was born in 1655 and grew up in the town of Padua, located in the Republic of Venice. As an adult, besides working on a variety of instruments, he notably was as a harpsichord maker. In this line of work, at the age of thirty-three, he attracted the attention of Ferdinando de Medici, the son and heir to Cosimo de Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Medici hired Cristofori to help maintain the instruments in his vast collection, as well as to try and come up with some new ones.

Cristofori, however, was initially not interested in the position. In one of the few records we have of the man, he noted that “the prince was told that I did not wish to go; he replied that he would make me want to.” It came to pass that Cristofori was started at a salary greater than his predecessor, making twelve scudi per month, and was given a fully furnished house that included the tools he’d need to make and maintain instruments. Eventually, he was also given his own workshop and two assistants, rather than having to share space with other craftsmen who worked for Medici.

Before Cristofori invented the piano, there was a decided lack of stringed instruments with a keyboard that could offer a range of musical expression and was suitable for public performances. The main options at the time consisted of the harpsichord and the clavichord. Both instruments work by pressing a key on the keyboard resulting in the corresponding string being plucked. The main issue with these was that the volume of the harpsichord could not be be increased or decreased while it was being played, and the clavichord was simply much too quiet to satisfy an audience of any size. As such, it was typically used by musicians for composition and practice. Notably, the design of the piano overcame both of these issues.

As for when Cristofori invented what is today known as the piano, an inventory of the Medici’s musical instruments from 1700 reveals that the first piano was created by this date:

A large Arpicembalo by Bartolomeo Cristofori, of new invention that produces soft and loud, with two sets of strings at unison pitch, with soundboard of cypress without rose . . .

“Arpicembalo” more or less meant an instrument that resembles a harpsichord (literally: “harp-harpsichord”). The actual date of invention is thought to have been between 1698 and 1699, and Cristofori may have been working on the instrument as early as 1694. However, it was not revealed to the public until much later, in 1709.

The invention became known as the pianoforte after the Italian for “soft” and “strong.” It was described as this in the aforementioned original inventory listing as “che fa’ il piano, e il forte,” and in 1711 a journalist also publicly called the instrument a “harpsichord with soft and loud,” or “gravicembalo col piano e forte” (gravicembalo being a corruption of the Italian name for the harpsichord – clavicembalo). As the ability to make notes softer or louder while playing was one of the distinguishing features of the instrument, it caught on. Later, of course, the name was shortened to simply “piano.”

Drawings and descriptions of the original piano design were published in 1711, and instrument makers all over Europe began attempting to recreate Cristofori’s innovative instrument, most notably Gottfried Silbermann of Germany. Silbermann was so well known for his work with the piano that he is sometimes incorrectly named its inventor. In truth, while Silbermann played a pivotal role in the history of the piano and invented the forerunner of the modern damper pedal, he relied heavily on Cristofori’s designs to create his own version of the instrument, with this first version seeming to have been made in 1732, about a year after Cristofori’s death.

According to eighteenth century musician Johann Friedrich Agricola, however, Silbermann’s early work in the piano wasn’t completely satisfactory. After crafting his first instrument, Silbermann had Johann Sebastian Bach try it out, to less than glowing reviews. Bach’s criticism of the device spurred Silbermann to develop a better piano, this time attempting to copy Cristofori’s later designs from the 1720s that included most of the features included in modern pianos. After copying this version and having Bach try it out, Bach changed his tune on Silbermann’s workmanship. Among a few other pieces of evidence perhaps lending some credence to Agricola’s story, or at least the part that Bach liked Silbermann’s later incarnations of the instrument, a receipt from 8 May 1749 shows that Bach helped Silbermann sell one of his instruments.

In any event, after he invented the piano, it is thought that Cristofori continued to work for the Medici family, despite the death of Ferdinando in 1713. Cristofori ultimately died in 1731 at seventy-six, spending the latter portion of his life primarily attempting to improve upon the piano.

Three of Cristofori’s pianos survive to this day. The oldest, dating to 1720, is located at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The other two, also dating from the 1720s, reside at the Museo Nazionale degli Strumenti Musicali in Rome and the Grassi Museum für Musikinstrumenten in Leipzig.

Sarah StoneToday I Found Out

Bach Around the World

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Publio Delgado

Publio Delgado

A globetrotting musician from Barcelona has gone all out in recreating a movement of one of German composer J. S. Bach’s Suites for Unaccompanied Violoncello (BWV 1007-12). Singing 658 notes over 329 days in more than twenty-five cities across the world, Publio Delgado has managed to achieve his very own work of art. The result is a unique video travel log with a highly impressive soundtrack.

Explaining why he chose the first movement of Suite in G Major (BWV 1007), Delgado says, “I needed a piece composed only by a melody, without harmony, so I could just sing it by myself without having to depend on other people for other voices. This was perfect for it, not only because it met that requirement, but also because it’s a beautiful piece known worldwide.”

Each day, for just under a year, Publio found the time to sing two pitches in order to imitate this classical music extravaganza almost to perfection, despite having a very active social life. One moment he’s busy exploring a range of stunning landscapes across Japan, and the next he’s chilling on the beach back in Spain, riding the subway in NYC or playing in the snow in Boston. But, as filming spans such a long period of time, he’s often seen completing mundane tasks such as bathing, hanging up laundry or even lying down for a nap. In the footage, you are immediately thrown into the traveler’s exciting world as he spends time with close friends near and far. If only for a brief moment, it’s fantastic to see all the different backdrops that make up nearly a year of his carefree life.

Publio admits that he faced some technical difficulties while piecing the project together. One month before he finished, his editing software crashed and he lost all his hard work. But luckily he’d been keeping the videos in two different hard drives, just in case something like that happened, and he began reediting it from the beginning.

“I wanted to shoot the video in the most beautiful possible landscapes. For example, in Japanese island Hachijō-jima. I climbed up a mountain for three hours just to get a good shot of the island, and then I got lost on my way back, and it took me other three to four hours to get back to the village. Some other days, right before sleeping, I just realized I hadn’t recorded anything that day, so I just did whatever.”

During his time traveling, Publio says he did not have a specific route and booked tickets to different places on impulse, especially when he found a good deal and could afford it. “Every city/village/culture I visited has their own thing going on, their own strengths, their own weaknesses. Instead of deciding which one is the best, I’d rather just try to get influenced by the best of each place.”

Upon his return, is there anywhere where he’s desperate to travel to again?

“I try to travel places when they have their best weather. I like to go up north in Europe in summer, Asia in fall and spring and the south of Spain in winter.

“There are still a lot of places I haven’t been. I’ve never visited the southern hemisphere, and Africa, South America or Oceania are continents where I really, really want to go.”

And what advice would he give to anyone traveling around the world?

“Instead of visiting the tallest tower, the oldest temple, the biggest shopping mall, why not just try to live a daily life with local people, blend with their culture, eat where they eat, hang where they hang, and eventually become one more of them?”

Deborah WeitzmanMailOnline

Ward Swingle (1927-2015)

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Ward Swingle in1975

Ward Swingle in 1975

Ward Swingle, who died on 19 January 2015 at age 87, was the founding father of the Swingle Singers, the a cappella group that blended jazz rhythms with Baroque and classical music in a distinctive, easy-listening style. The group made its name with scat renditions of Bach: lots of “doob-a-do” and “bah-bah-badah” substituting for the keyboard strokes more commonly heard in works such as The Art of Fugue (BWV 1080).

Critics could be wary. “The history of pop music is littered with jazzed-up versions of the classics,” sniffed The Times after they packed the Albert Hall in April 1965, before conceding that some people “truly find that the music’s enjoyable qualities profit by being brought up to date”. Others believed that in the same way that Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey introduced many people to Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra, so Bach with a swing was an enticing introduction to Johann Sebastian’s carefully knitted counterpoint.

Not only did Swingle and his minstrels receive endorsement at the box office, major classical names such as John Barbirolli, Yehudi Menuhin and Glenn Gould offered their backing. George Malcolm, the renowned harpsichordist, shared the stage with them at the Festival Hall in 1966 in a program entitled “Jazz Sébastien Bach,” which was also the name of their first album.

Meanwhile, contemporary composers came calling. Luciano Berio wrote his colorful and noisy four-movement Sinfonia for the Swingle Singers, which they premiered with the New York Philharmonic in 1968 and performed at the Proms in 1969, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer.

Ward Lemar Swingle was born on September 21 1927 in Mobile, Alabama, where, he once said, the sounds of New Orleans float along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. He took to the piano from an early age and with his older brother, Ira, played lunchtime concerts in the school cafeteria, garnering sufficient popularity to be elected as president and vice-president respectively of their student council. By the time he left school, Ward, Ira and one of their sisters, Nina, were touring with the Ted Fio Rito Orchestra.

He studied music at the Cincinnati Conservatory, where he met his future wife, a French-born violinist, and won a Fulbright scholarship to pursue his musical studies in postwar Paris, taking lessons there with the celebrated pianist Walter Gieseking. Soon he was working as a rehearsal pianist for Roland Petit’s Ballet de Paris at a time when Petit was exploring jazz rhythms in his choreography.

Swingle’s first singing work – his voice was a mellifluous tenor – was with Blossom Dearie’s Les Blue Stars, a French vocal group whose members included Christiane Legrand, the sister of Michel Legrand, the composer. From there he joined Mimi Perrin’s Les Double Six, which won acclaim for its electronic treatment of jazz standards.

As Perrin’s health deteriorated in the early 1960s, Swingle, Legrand and other members of the group began singing privately, experimenting with jazzed-up Bach arrangements with the aim of improving their collective vocal agility. By 1962 the eight-member group was performing in public as Les Swingle Singers. Their concerts proved to be great hits with audiences, especially in Britain, and their early recordings won five Grammy awards.

By the early 1970s Swingle felt that he had exhausted the repertoire possibilities with his Parisian singers. He also wanted to experiment with other techniques, including close-mic singing. Crossing the Channel in 1973 he set up Swingle II, or the New Swingle Singers. The traditional swing music remained, but listeners were now regaled with jazz renditions from a wider selection of musical traditions, ranging from Baroque to big band. As well as looking forward, the Swingle Singers now also began looking into music’s back catalogue, releasing a disc of madrigals with a jazz twist in 1974.

Britain proved to be fertile ground. There were invitations to music festivals around the country as well as plentiful radio work. In 1982, for example, the Swingle Singers appeared in a televised concert from St. Paul Cathedral performing the sacred music of Duke Ellington with Tony Bennett, Phyllis Hyman and McHenry Boatwright.

After recording the Berio Sinfonia under the baton of Pierre Boulez in 1984, Ward Swingle stepped back from frontline singing to return to the United States. He remained the group’s musical adviser, while also running vocal workshops and publishing his many musical arrangements. He was often invited to share the techniques that he had developed for the Swingle Singers with established groups, such as the Stockholm Chamber Choir and the BBC Northern Singers.

A decade later Swingle moved back to France, and latterly was living in Britain. His book Swingle Singing, published in 1999, tells not only the history of the group, but also takes a musicological look at the techniques that he developed.

Today the Swingle Singers, now a seven-member ensemble, continue to push the boundaries of vocal music while also making recordings for television programs and films, including Sex and the City. Around seventy alumni keep in touch regularly, many of them gathering to celebrate Ward Swingle’s eightieth birthday in 2007, when the Berio was heard once again at the Proms.

He is survived by his wife, Françoise Demorest, whom he married in 1952, and by their three daughters.

The Telegraph

The Trocks Dance Bach

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Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo in Go for Barocco

Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo in Go for Barocco

The Trocks were in Calgary on the weekend for two sold-out performances at the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium Friday and Saturday night. Hosted by Alberta Ballet, there could be no doubt of the popularity of the all-male ballet company, now in their fortieth anniversary season, as they so completely delighted their audience while dancing in tutus and pointe shoes, equally comfortably as in full ballet cavalier.

Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo are not exactly the mad satirists of ballet that some claim. They are the best kind of artful parodists, capable of illuminating the most gripping sections of academic classical ballet, albeit via a wink and smile and the occasional well-placed shtick.

Despite the fact that such an international reputation precedes them, there were times when the ensemble took long breaks from their perfectly deranged, yet nuanced self-mocking humor, to bedazzle with a stunning virtuosity that I frankly can’t understand, at a physical level, just quite how they pulled it off. From every pirouette, fouetté, brisé, and stock classical ballet moment that would clearly have been meant for women to dance, they acquitted each movement with such aplomb, it made my body hurt just to watch them. I couldn’t imagine getting myself to do that for any sustained amount of time.

While several people at intermission could be heard to exclaim that their faces hurt from laughing so hard, for me it was my core that hurt the most, from marveling at how hard – very hard – it was for each of them, from a feather-shedding Dying Swan to swan diving, to pull off such refined moves. For a man to dance like a woman is a truly difficult role to train for – both extraordinarily fun and extraordinarily difficult at the same time.

The Trocks are unspeakably talented, and there were times, many times, that their lines and execution could make you forget that these were not women, but men performing, and that captivated me more than their equally successful, wonderful humor.

Moving past dancing en pointe, which is hard enough for a man, I was impressed with their ensemble work in Go for Barocco set to Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto no. 3 in G Major (BWV 1048), a parody of Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco set to Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D minor (BWV 1043). It is hard enough to dance to intricate counterpoint, but the Trocks’ Third Movement fugue was enthralling. At the same time, while the tribute to Balanchine was meticulously pulled off with an enviable poise that made the evening thoroughly enjoyable for me, I loved the mocking description of the dance found in the program, a perfect parody of academic and old-world journalese employed by critics, characterizing the work as a “primer in identifying stark coolness and choreosymphonic delineation on the new (neo) neo-new classic dance.”

That twisted language describes many of the Trocks’ best moments in their signature hit Swan Lake, Act II. It was a great way to lead off the show, stealing everyone’s hearts right away, while at the same time leading us through not only standard-bearer classical balletic language but also highlighting what that language is all about through a healthy degree of wit and charm. Occasionally, the show could devolve for a few seconds into slapstick, to the delight of many, such as an unwitting leg extension impacting an apparently unsuspecting member of the corps, and knocking him (her) momentarily unconscious. Or, sometimes a few tutued swans would fall out of line, or just on the floor, from a little too much enthusiasm. The Trocks ended their presentation with astounding scenes based on Petipa’s Paquita, set to a stunning set of five unforgettable variations.

I realize I haven’t mentioned any names of the touring company, but in a way, their male and female aliases seem to be serious projected alter egos, blurring the dancers’ individual and collective identities. After a while, I wasn’t sure I could tell male from female, or parodistic pillory from serious artistic travesti. And at the end of the show, during the thunderous applause, all I knew was that behind the humor there were very always beautiful and aesthetically moving experiences, not too far hidden beneath the Trocks’ carefully concealed dual artistic identities of truth and travesty. Bravo!

Stephan Bonfield – The Calgary Herald

Vivaldi with a Bit of Oud

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Joseph Tawadros

Joseph Tawadros and his oud

Winning three consecutive ARIA Awards – for best new world music album – is not something many people achieve. But Australian musician Joseph Tawadros, a virtuoso on the oud, a pear-shaped Arabic string instrument, says it’s largely because he writes so many songs.

And besides, he knows he still has a way to go to catch the Wiggles with their seven straight.

“It’s hard for pop people to pull out an album a year,” Tawadros told the Mercury. “I’m pulling an album a year, so I can get up for it again. I’m writing so much. Every year I have about three albums’ worth of repertoire.”

Aided by technology and a fertile mind, he is prolific. “When I’m touring, sometimes you’re just stuck in the room with your instrument – I’m just writing,” Tawadros said. “I’m always coming up with themes, and with the invention of the iPhone, I can record these themes. “Now my phone is full of little sketches. I probably record about three sketches a day, especially with this Vivaldi music.” By that, the 31-year-old Sydneysider means the material for his next tour, with Richard Tognetti‘s Australian Chamber Orchestra, playing the Four Seasons.

“I’ve always been a big fan of Vivaldi, and the Baroque period interested me in Western classical music, because it was the closest thing to Arabic music I found,” Tawadros said. “I always identified Vivaldi and Bach – especially in the minor keys, and especially in the harmonic minor keys – as Arabic; I always thought they were Arabic melodies. That’s why they’re so much more accessible to an Eastern ear. There’s no big leaps; the intervals are shorter. The melodies are linear.

“My background was Arabic traditional music and folk music, but Bach and Vivaldi were real eye-openers to the classical music world. . . . Vivaldi is my absolute favorite in the classical world.”

Born in Egypt, and moving to Australia at the age of three, Tawadros, 31, grew up in Redfern and still lives within a few kilometers of Abercrombie Street. He has learned how to play several instruments, aided by regular trips to Egypt and having a brother, James, who is an expert on the Arabic tambourine called the riq and who is also joining the orchestra on this tour.

With his immaculate dress sense, a cheeky sense of humor and an upturned moustache like a cross between Salvador Dalí‘s and Hercule Poirot‘s, Joseph is likely to stand out on a classical music stage.

Apart from Vivaldi, the rest of this program is mostly Tawadros’ original music, with the orchestra’s contribution to these pieces arranged in collaboration with Tognetti.

Tawadros said he plays a complementary role – until it’s time for his own music. “I think [the orchestra’s] interpretation of the Four Seasons is lively enough and amazing,” he said. “So what you need is just to color that, to add a little bit of spice.

“The oud is just to add to the greater picture. And I think that’s the great thing about the Four Seasons. It’s such a group thing, and I’m just assisting in some spice.”

Ben Langford – Illawarra Mercury

Four-Limbed Performance

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For some five centuries the trio has been the true test of an organist. The mode of playing in which each hand takes a single voice while the feet are responsible for the bass line had already enjoyed a long history before the 1720s when Johann Sebastian Bach set about revolutionizing the genre. The early modern German masters of organ polyphony, chief among them the blind virtuoso Arnolt Schlick, honed their virtuosity in three-part textures interweaving independent lines; in contrast to the sometimes overwhelming effect of their more expansive polyphonic experiments of six (or more) parts, the trio produced a contrapuntal fabric whose clarity not only allowed for the expression of nuance, but also exposed the slightest technical or musical weakness in the performer.

Schlick and has contemporaries had treated the organ trio largely as if it were a vocal piece, with little crossing of the voices and only short bursts of figuration or ornament. Bach almost certainly knew none of the trios of Schlick’s generation, although he was acquainted with numerous seventeenth-century examples of three-part writing at the organ, likewise derived essentially from vocal models. But Bach’s trios bear only a distant relation to their precursors, instead meeting, and often surpassing, the technical demands of contemporary ensemble trio sonatas of his time. Using all four limbs, one virtuosic organist had to do the duties of three instrumental virtuosos.

The organ was the ultimate tool for such an undertaking. The central German instruments known to Bach were equipped with an array of registers that imitated contemporary strings and woodwinds. In Bach’s trios each hand was assigned to a separate keyboard and therefore a distinct sound, while the feet had yet another in the pedal. The treble lines might be rendered as if on oboe and violin, or as a pair of complementary flutes above the bass, or in any number of combinations from the endless possibilities offered by Bach’s organs.

With the aid of such a palette of colors, Bach could make the trio sing. But he could also make it dance. His trios were as much physical as musical: the organist’s entire body had to be attuned to the pathos and sweetness of adagios and the insouciant athleticism of allegros. This physicality was a crucial part of Bach’s musical identity, and contemporaries and students praised the speed and accuracy of his feet, either alone, or with his hands. His obituary published in 1754 – a document whose title described the deceased expressly as “A World Famous Organist” – claimed that, “With his two feet, [Bach] could play things on the pedals that many not unskillful clavier players would find it bitter enough to have to play with five fingers.” The essential feature of German organ playing was the independence required of hands and feet, in contrast to the mostly supportive underpinning provided by the pedals of other European traditions. This independence was exposed at its most relentless and most refined in Bach’s trios.

The main sources for the six Trio Sonatas (BWV 525-530) are two manuscripts stemming from the Bach family: an autograph copy probably made around 1727; and another copy in the hand of Anna Magdalena Bach, later divided and the missing section then re-copied by Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. These manuscripts suggest just how important the trios were in the musical life of the Bach family and Bach’s students, not least in the formation of one of the greatest organists of the next generation – Bach’s first son, Wilhelm Friedemann. After J. S. Bach’s death, the organ trios were held up as the ultimate test of true organ playing. In the list of organ works in Johann Nikolaus Forkel’s 1802 Bach biography, a work that relied largely on information gathered from Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Wilhelm Friedemann, the trios “for two claviers and obbligato pedals” come as the final entry, and the prime carrier of Bach’s musical and familial legacy: “Bach composed [the trios] for his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, who, by practicing them, had to prepare himself to become the great performer on the organ that he afterward was. It is impossible to say enough of their beauty. They were composed when the author was in his most mature age and may be considered as his chief work of this description.” A later eighteenth-century history of Leipzig’s Thomasschule praised Bach as the greatest organist of his day and described Wilhelm Friedemann as the son who inherited the organ art most directly. The account goes on to claim that Bach’s organ music “surpassed all that had previously been written for the instrument.” The trios were the clearest expression of a technique that demanded unwavering independence: “the left hand had to be as capable as the right, and he treated the pedal as its own voice.” Other Bach devotees praised the timeless modernity of the trios; some three decades after his father’s death C. P. E. Bach asserted that the trios “are written in such galant style that they still sound very good, and never grow old, but on the contrary will outlive all revolutions of fashion in music.” For C. P. E. Bach the collection was the crowning proof of the pedal’s importance in organ playing.

But for all their galant finesse, there are pitfalls at every turn and the slightest hitch will be noticed. Things can go immediately and irrevocably wrong as in no other genre: it is impossible to fake your way through a trio sonata movement.

None of this is to gainsay the impact and difficulty of Bach’s great preludes and fugues. Because my performance of the six sonatas had to be divided between two CDs, I took the opportunity to enclose each of the two sets of three sonatas with one of Bach’s monumental free works. Bach himself adopted this conceit at least once, framing the magisterial collection of chorale preludes of the Clavierübung III (1739) with the Prelude and Fugue in E-flat Major (BWV 552). Bach would certainly not have minded that work’s removal from its original published context so that the prelude could introduce the first trio sonata (BWV 525) in the same key, and the fugue provide an apocalyptic peroration after the sprightly last movement of the D-minor sonata (BWV 527).

When considered in light of Bach’s vaunted (and sometimes vilified) taste for harmonic and contrapuntal complexity, the six sonatas are not especially rich in chromaticism or shocking intervallic relations. There are unforgettable exceptions: among the most arresting is the stabbing angularity of the second fugal theme in the third movement of the C minor Sonata (BWV 526/3); and the half-steps descending amidst arabesques at the close of the middle movement of the final sonata (BWV 530/2). The generally diatonic harmonic approach (even if inflected with many unexpected Bachian turns and twists) and the cantabile profile of the themes led C. P. E. Bach to cherish the collection’s galant refinement.

Any deficiencies in the Bachian diet of chromaticism are made up for with the Prelude and Fugue in E minor (BWV 548); the prelude establishes the key of the ensuing sonata in E minor (BWV 528), and the fugue offers a sprawling coda after the final movement, a bright fugal frolic, of the last sonata in G Major (BWV 530). The angular chromaticism of the subject of the great “Wedge” fugue is itself singular: thrillingly transgressive, the piece is not a retreat from fashion and favor but a challenge to both. Heard against such sublime experiments, the trio sonatas can hardly be accused of pandering to prevailing fashion but instead show that the task of training organists in the art of four-limbed performance can be, in Bach’s hands and feet, a tremendously imaginative and challenging exercise in gracefulness and poise, both musical and physical.

David YearsleyCounterPunch

Anne Sofie von Otter

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Anne Sofie von Otter

Anne Sofie von Otter

“I have copious amounts of energy,” said Grammy Award-winning mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter during a recent phone interview from her home in the Swedish countryside, “And I’m very thankful for that asset.” The answer comes in response to the question of how the celebrated singer continues to stay in demand, while maintaining a a seemingly tireless performance schedule as diverse as it is ambitious.

The first half of 2015 sees the intrepid Swede starring in a new production of Kurt Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny at London’s Royal Opera House, appearances as Waltraud in Götterdämmerung in Vienna, and the premiere of a new work by Hungarian composer Péter Eötvös with the New York Philharmonic. And those are just a few of the highlights.

Yet von Otter is beginning 2015 with the kind of unique collaboration she enjoys, a five-city North American recital tour of German and French song with award-winning pianist Angela Hewitt. The tour kicks off at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory Friday night, 9 January 2015, and continues to Mandel Hall in Chicago Sunday afternoon, as part of the University of Chicago Presents series. Subsequent concerts will be given in intimate venues in Boston, New York City and San Francisco.

The tour is the product of a well-received concert given by the pair during Hewitt’s Trasimeno Music Festival in Umbria, Italy in 2012. “I like working with Angela. She’s very quick, and very musical, so I thought ‘Why not, let’s go for it,’” said von Otter of the decision to reunite for a multi-city tour. Hewitt agreed. “I’m so happy it has worked out,” said the Canadian pianist. “We don’t have a hard time feeling the music in the same way. It is all very natural and comes easily.”

“It’s not so usual to have two ladies on stage, one playing the piano and one singing,” added von Otter. This is particularly rare for the singer, who is usually seen in concert with keyboard collaborator Bengt Forsberg, with whom she has worked since 1980.

Hewitt is a worthy partner for the established mezzo. An acclaimed interpreter of Bach – The Guardian referred to her as “the pre-eminent Bach performer of our time” – her sizable discography reveals a penchant for both impressionistic French song and Romantic German repertoire, both of which appear on the concert program. Works to be performed include art songs selected by the singer, as well several solo piano pieces chosen by Hewitt. “A pure lieder recital is not my thing,” said von Otter. “I like to have the pianist or another instrumentalist join in and do solos.”

The first half of the concert will feature German repertory by Brahms, Beethoven and Schubert, including well-known Romantic lieder such as Schubert’s tender Im Abendrot, and Brahms’ Von ewiger Liebe. The second moves into Francophone territory, musical terrain that both von Otter and Hewitt are taken with. Pieces to be performed include works by Fauré, Debussy, Chabrier, and the infrequently heard female composer Cécile Chaminade.

Although von Otter is widely considered one of the top lieder interpreters of her generation, her calm speaking voice becomes animated as she discussed the final set of songs by Chaminade. “I can’t wait to do those!” she exclaimed. “They are so lovely and charming that I’m really having fun practicing them now.”

Chaminade’s late-Romantic period art song remained largely forgotten until von Otter and Bengt Forsberg recorded the album Mots d’Amour in 2002. Her songs will be placed after three pieces from Debussy’s steamy Chansons de Bilitis song cycle, and von Otter cites the complementary nature of both sets. “It is very nice to show the width between the very impressionistic Debussy and the Chaminade songs coming up at the end. They are very, very different, and yet both composers are wonderful.”

Hewitt, too, expressed enthusiasm for the lesser-known piano works she will present. “I have a particular fondness for the two works of Chabrier, Idylle and the Bourrée fantasque, which I played when I was a young student. They are not as well known as they should be, and are full of charm.”

In the days leading up to the New Year, a time when most of us direct our attention primarily to digesting oversized holiday meals, von Otter is focused on preparing herself for the tour and the remainder of the season. “I have a break now, so I’m working several hours every day to try to prepare the voice for what’s coming up,” she said. “There is a lot of diversity in my repertoire and what I need is time to prepare it really thoroughly so it’s all very well worked into my voice.”

This attitude is at the crux of the singer’s secret to success: hard work. “When I was very young I could switch from Korngold to Monteverdi from one day to the next.” Now, she says, practice becomes increasingly essential. “Singing is like any sport. You can’t just go and do the high jump or a marathon unless you really practice, and with age that becomes more and more important.”

This healthy dose of realism is likely what keeps von Otter perfecting songs and learning new roles at an age when many of her peers begin to show signs of vocal fatigue.

Another of von Otter’s admirable attributes is her willingness to strive for mindful improvement. “When I was in Chicago in the fall singing at the Lyric Opera [as Clairon in Strauss’s Capriccio], I took some lessons with Julia Faulkner who used to be a colleague of mine. I always liked Julia and found that she had a lot of students, young artists of the Lyric, who sang very well. She’s now at the very back of my mind, like ‘What would Julia tell me?’”

The daughter of a Swedish diplomat, von Otter spent her youth in Bonn, Stockholm and London. She studied voice in her native Stockholm and at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama, before embarking on a fruitful three-decade career in leading opera houses and recital halls the world over. Tall and endowed with a natural grace, von Otter has sailed effortlessly into Hosenrolle and other mezzo faire, while maintaining a busy schedule of recital and soloist engagements, recording dozens of albums for Deutsche Grammophon, and more recently, her current label, Naïve.

Von Otter also has a penchant for collaborating with other artists and is not afraid to venture beyond the classical milieu. She has recorded an album of ABBA covers and collaborated with the likes of pop legend Elvis Costello and jazz pianist Brad Mehldau.

With ambitious plans for the 2015-16 season, including a production of The Threepenny Opera in Vienna, the energetic singer shows no signs of slowing down. “On the contrary, I may as well keep my nose to the grindstone,” she says cheerily. “Eventually I’ll have to stop and think about teaching, or doing master classes or perhaps getting a dog.”

Until that time comes, there are roles to be learned, recordings to be made and plenty of art songs to be sung.

Sarah Hucal – Chicago Classical Review

Bach in Valletta

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St. Publius Church in Floriana

St. Publius Church in Floriana

The third edition of the Valletta International Baroque Festival 2015 starts on 10 January 2015 with twenty-one events over fifteen days in seven venues.

The 2015 Festival is dedicated to the memory of Maltese composer Geronimo Abos as 2015 is the tercentennial anniversary of his birth. His music will be performed by Die Kölner Akademie, Passacaglia Baroque Ensemble and the Valletta International Baroque Ensemble.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment returns to perform the glorious Bach St. John Passion (BWV 245) in St. John’s Co-Cathedral. This will be offset by Michelangelo Falvetti‘s magnificent Il diluvio universale, performed by the Cappella Mediterranea under the baton of Leonardo García Alarcón at St. Publius Church in Floriana, a new addition to the list of venues for 2015.

The Malta Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Peter Stark, will present an innovative program of twentieth century works inspired by the Baroque which includes a flute concerto by Lukas Foss performed by the orchestra’s own flautist Rebecca Hall.

The Festival program also includes music ranging from Baroque piano transcriptions of music by Bach, Handel and Gluck, performed by Dmytro Sukhovienko, sacred and profane Baroque music from the Americas performed by Ensemble Villancico, and Handel concert arias presented by Robert King conducting The King’s Consort and countertenor Iestyn Davies.

Bach features strongly in this Festival. His Suites for Unaccompanied Violoncello (BWV 1007-12) are performed by the world-renowned Sigiswald Kuijken on a violoncello da spalla, and his Goldberg Variations (BWV 988) by local pianist Joanne Camilleon. The European Union Baroque Ensemble will perform music by Handel and his London friends, and the Festival’s resident ensemble, the Valletta International Baroque Ensemble, will perform at two concerts.

The Festival also includes events specifically for children and culminates with the Baroque Festival Ball to be held in Teatru Manoel on Saturday, 24 January 2015.

The Year 1715

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Weimar in 1715

Weimar, ca. 1715

Three hundred years ago in Weimar, Konzertmeister Bach was busy composing sacred works for performance in the Palace Church at the Wilhelmsburg as well as playing the organ.

The terms of Bach’s employment included a requirement to compose and perform a new cantata every month, but with the death of his patron, Prince Johann Ernst of Saxe-Weimar, in August 1715, the  period of silent mourning at the court banned all musical performances for three months.

During 2015, the two 1715 cantatas that survive three centuries later as autograph manuscripts deserve to be specially commemorated.

Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn

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Stradivari's pattern for a viola d'amore bridge

Stradivari’s pattern for a viola d’amore bridge

Bach’s cantata Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn (BWV 152) was first performed three hundred years ago on 30 December 1714, the Sunday after Christmas. With a text written by Salomon Franck, the Weimar court poet, the cantata is the earliest extant example of a dialogue, a technique that Bach repeated in his third annual cycle of cantatas written for Leipzig.

Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn is scored for soprano and bass soloists and four solo instruments: recorder, oboe, viola d’amore, viola da gamba and basso continuo. Christoph Wolff calls attention to the “colorful and delicate effects achievable with these forces.”

Among the extant Bach cantatas, only Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn employs the viola d’amore. The composer, however, made extensive use of a pair of these instruments in his scoring for the St. John Passion (BWV 245).

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