Music from Psycho and a 19th-century piano highlight Halloween concert
By Peter Alexander
Be sure to take a shower before you go the Boulder Chamber Orchestra’s concert Friday (7:30 p.m. Oct. 30, First United Methodist Church, Boulder). You may not want to afterwards.
Director Bahman Saless has programmed the music from Alfred Hitchcock’s horror classic Psycho, including the slashing chords from Hollywood’s most famous shower scene. “The central idea was spook,” Saless says of the concert, which he has titled, in honor of Halloween, “Spook Symphony.”
In addition to Psycho and other pieces he picked to go with the spooky theme, the concert will also feature pianist Mina Gajić performing two works with the orchestra. She will give the first U.S. performance on a historical piano that she owns, one that was built in Paris in 1895 by the piano maker Sebastian Érard.
Érard’s pianos were owned and played by many of the leading composers and pianists throughout the century, including Haydn, Beethoven, Liszt, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Ravel, Fauré, and many others.
Gajić will play two works for piano and string orchestra: the Malédiction (Curse) by Liszt, and Young Apollo by Benjamin Britten. Other works on the program for strings alone will be the Adagio and Fugue in C minor, K546, by Mozart, and the Little Suite for Strings, Op. 1, by Carl Nielsen.
Tickets for the concert are available here.
“I wanted to do the music to Psycho, because people really liked it the last time we did it,” Saless says. “I think (composer Bernard) Herrmann was one of the best (of the classic film composers). He did a lot of Alfred Hitchcock movies, and they’re all absolutely, as far as I’m concerned, ideal for the genre.
“The question is what goes with Psycho, sticking to classical music (and) our routine of doing things that are not played enough. I knew the Nielsen Little Suite, which is not spooky but has a waltz that has a very macabre type of sound to it. And then another unique, spooky, crazy, lunatic piece is the Britten Young Apollo. It’s almost like the dance of ghouls—it’s very comic ghoulishness.
“And Malédiction also, just from the name of it sounded very apt, and it has crazy harmonies, really out of this world unexpected harmonic changes and modulations. And I thought it’s a very good partner to the Britten.”
It’s not spooky, but for many people the greatest draw of the concert will be Gajić’s Érard piano. She found it in Amsterdam in 2014, at Maison Érard, a preserver and restorer of Érard pianos. She had played more than 100 historic pianos in her career, and was looking for one that she could purchase for her own.
“We walked into this beautiful canal house and there were 30 pianos in one show room,” she says. “I spent about a week there, playing all of those pianos. This one stood out because of the clarity of its tone, the color of the sound, and the fact that it is really a virtuosic instrument, and yet it has such richness and fullness to the tone which really comes to life in a concert hall.”
The piano has all original parts, including the case, ivory keys, the original soundboard, dampers and hammers, and even a few of the original strings from 120 years ago. At seven feet, it is a full concert grand of the time.
The piano “is one of a kind because of the (custom) artwork on the case,” Gajić says. The instrument was made “for a Belgian noble family that had a chamber salon and concert series at the turn of the (20th) century.
“I am hoping to some day learn that Debussy, Fauré, or Ravel played upon this very instrument. It is in fact likely, given this piano lived in Brussels. However, all I know at this point is that it is a one-of-a-kind Érard, among the best instruments they made.”
There are three things that are particularly distinctive about the piano, that give it qualities unlike modern concert grands. For one, it is straight-strung, like many instruments of the 19th century. In other words, all the strings run parallel to one another, at a 90 degree angle to the keyboard, whereas modern pianos are cross-strung, with the bass strings crossing diagonally over the higher strings. This newer design gives a rich sound, but one that is heavier and thicker—and sometimes murkier—than straight-strung pianos.
The second distinctive feature is that the grain of the wood in the soundboard runs parallel to the strings, directly away from the keyboard. This too is unlike modern pianos, where the grain goes diagonally from right to left, across the direction of the strings. With the diagonal grain, the soundboard resonates all together, whereas when the grain parallels the strings, each portion of the soundboard will resonate separately, giving a different timbre to different registers of the piano.
These two features combine to create a distinctive sound many performers prefer for the music of the 19th century. Indeed, the pianist Daniel Barenboim has recently designed a modern instrument for his own use that has straight strings and the wood grain in parallel.
The third distinctive quality of Gajić’s Érard is that the dampers (felt pads that stop the strings from sounding) are set below the strings. Pianos today all have dampers above the strings, which is easier is one respect, since gravity will cause them to fall onto the strings. The disadvantage is that the dampers can make a thump when they hit the strings that can even be heard in some recordings, whereas dampers under the strings are much quieter.
Gajić suggested several things the audience can listen for when they hear her piano. One is the clarity of the sound, especially in the bass. “Also there is a very distinct registral quality at the top of the piano,” she says. “In the very, very highest register it’s very clear and very special. It sounds like pure bells.”
Below that, each register of the piano has a distinctive sound, much like different voices in a choir, with a “soulful mid-register and a lot of power in the bass. And this piano has a lot of power and a lot of projection,” she says.
“Nowadays we hear a lot of the period instruments from the classical era and Baroque era—strings, winds, singing styles—but we don’t really have such an opportunity to hear a piano which is in its original condition from the 19th century. I would definitely encourage everybody to hear the piano, because it offers an insight not only into how composers of the 19th century were writing music, but also how the audiences were hearing it.
“You can really hear all the nuances in the voicing and the textures when it’s in a larger hall. We already moved the piano to the hall and it sounds fantastic. I’m really excited and really, really happy that we’re playing these pieces on this piano and in this hall.”
Liszt’s “Curse,” Hitchcock’s Psycho, a remarkable old piano, and Britten’s “lunatic piece” Young Apollo. It all sounds slightly crazy.
But as Norman Bates said, “We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven’t you?”
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Boulder Chamber Orchestra,
Bahman Saless, conductor, with
Mina Gajić, piano
Bernard Herrmann: Music to Psycho
Mozart: Adagio and Fugue in C minor, K546
Carl Nielsen: Little Suite for Strings, Op. 1
Benjamin Britten: Young Apollo
7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 30
First United Methodist Church
1421 Spruce St., Boulder