120-year-old debutante makes a strong impression with Boulder Chamber Orchestra

Saless’ BCO and Mina Gajić’s 1895 piano give promise for the future

By Peter Alexander

Last night (Oct. 30) the Boulder Chamber Orchestra (BCO) and conductor Bahman Saless presented what may the most important debut of the musical season in Boulder. At 120, the debutante sounded wonderful.

BCO's debutante: an 1895 piano by Érard.

BCO’s debutante: an 1895 piano by Érard.

In case you didn’t know, the “debutante” was a piano, made in Paris in 1895 by the firm of Sébastien Érard. It was played by the evening’s soloist, pianist Mina Gajić, who purchased the piano in Amsterdam in 2014 and brought it to Boulder. The concert was the first ever performance on the instrument in the U.S.

A superb pianist, Gajić gave memorable performances of two works—one written before the piano was built, and one after. The earlier work was the Malédiction (Curse) for piano and strings of Franz Liszt; the later was Young Apollo for piano, string quartet and string orchestra by Benjamin Britten.

“We thought it would be an interesting juxtaposition to have a piano that fits right in the middle of these pieces—Liszt in 1833, Britten in 1939, and the piano from 1895,” Gajić said.

Erard piano.4The straight-strung Érard piano, with strings that run parallel in all registers, has a marvelously clear and transparent sound. (For more details of the piano’s construction, read my earlier post previewing the concert.) The sound is particularly striking in the highest register: bright, pure and clean, without ever sounding pingy or losing a delicious piano sound. The middle register sounds more like a modern piano, but one that is remarkably present.

My only reservation might be the bass, which is powerful and hard-edged, and when heard alone almost metallic in its timbre. Nonetheless, the bass supports and blends with chords in all registers, adding weight to the sound without turning it thick or murky.

But what is most striking is the clarity and penetration of the sound in all registers. The sound was never swallowed up by the full string orchestra, in even the loudest passages. Every chord throughout the range was clear, always audible, always transparent. Even though the instrument is seven feet—in contrast to today’s Steinway D and Kawai EX at nine feet, or the Bösendorfer 290 Imperial at nine feet six inches—the Érard can be plenty loud, without any distortion or loss of sound quality.

Pianist Mina Gajić

Pianist Mina Gajić

But the piano, however marvelous, doesn’t play itself. Gajić had the apparently effortless control of the music that characterizes every true virtuoso, in both the Liszt and the Britten.

Young Apollo is an odd piece, one that was written very early in the composer’s career and then withdrawn after its first performance. It was never heard again until after Britten’s death in 1976. It is hard to find in the score signs of the Britten one recognizes from his later and well known operas. It is full of bustle and fanfare, with declamatory string chords juxtaposed with surging scales running the full length of the piano.

Gajić and the BCO gave a robust performance. If the piece was not quite as nutty as Saless suggested in his remarks, it was pleasingly off-center, and played with conviction. One might consider the piano a little antiquated for a 1939 piece, but it was more than up to Britten’s quirky demands. The opening scales were the perfect introduction to the piano, allowing one to hear the sound from the bottom to the clear, bell tones that capped each run.

The title of Liszt’s Malédiction originally referred to only the first section of the piece, which contains a great deal of contrast along with its pianistic fireworks. It is likely that the pianos of 1833 couldn’t quite provide what Liszt wanted in this score, but by 1895 Érard pianos were up to the task.

Once again, Gajić and the orchestra gave a very convincing interpretation of a piece that is not heard often. Gajić tossed off all of Liszt’s virtuoso passages—written, after all, for his own showy concerts—with confidence. The piano was never covered or dominated by the orchestra in this well balanced performance.

Bahman Saless. Photo by Keith Bob.

Bahman Saless. Photo by Keith Bob.

Intermission saw audience members surrounding and photographing the piano, which obviously stirred great interest. It is unfortunate if the rest of the concert was slightly overshadowed by the instrument, because Saless led incisive, controlled performances throughout. The program, titled “Spook Symphony,” included several pieces selected for Halloween.

The concert opened with Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue in C minor, K546, which begins with an ominous C minor that suggests threat and fear. The piece was written for string quartet, but the full sound of the BCO string section multiplied the sense of menace in the Adagio. On the other side of the same coin, the fugue occasionally suffered from the lower parts not being as nimble and precise in section as they could be with the single players of a quartet.

After intermission, Saless and the BCO presented the one definitively spooky piece of the “Spook Symphony,” Bernard Herrmann’s score to Alfred Hitchcock’s horror classic Psycho. Under Saless, the performance achieved all the menace and tension that Herrmann was aiming for. The parts were carefully balanced, with interior lines and a repeated three-note motive carefully brought out from the texture.

Bahman Saless with the Boulder Chamber Orchestra. Photo by Keith Bobo.

Bahman Saless with the Boulder Chamber Orchestra. Photo by Keith Bobo.

This was clearly an audience favorite. I saw knowing, if slightly guarded, smiles and heard a slight nervous chuckle when the slashing chords of the famous shower scene were played.

Happily, the concert ended with a piece that did not leave audience members afraid to venture out into the dark. Danish composer Carl Nielsen’s early Little Suite for Strings—as Op. 1 it was his first published work—opens with a slightly sinister Prelude, but proceeds with movements that are much more cheerful. The Intermezzo practically danced along, and the Finale ended comfortably. Saless elicited very good string playing and a true ensemble performance from the section.

In all, this was a memorable concert that promises well for the BCO’s season, and for all future appearances of Gajić and her historic piano.

Boulder Chamber Orchestra presents a slightly crazy “Spook Symphony”

Music from Psycho and a 19th-century piano highlight Halloween concert

By Peter Alexander

psycho-posterBe 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.

Pianist Mina Gajić

Pianist Mina Gajić

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.

Bahman Saless. Photo by Keith Bob.

Bahman Saless. Photo by Keith Bob.

“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.

1895 piano by Érard.

The 1895 Érard piano of Mina Gajić.

“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.”

Erard piano.3There 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 dampers under the strings in Gajić's Érard piano.

The dampers under the strings in Gajić’s Érard piano.

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.

Erard piano.4“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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Spook Symphony

Bahman Saless with the Boulder Chamber Orchestra. Photo by Keith Bobo.

Bahman Saless with the Boulder Chamber Orchestra. Photo by Keith Bobo.

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
Liszt: Malédiction
Benjamin Britten: Young Apollo

7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 30
First United Methodist Church
1421 Spruce St., Boulder

Tickets

Boulder Bach Festival moves six degrees from Bach

Program features Impressionist and 21st-century composers, plus one Bach sonata

By Peter Alexander

Pianist Mina Gajić

Pianist Mina Gajić

The ever-broadening Boulder Bach Festival will end its 2014–15 season with a concert of music for violin and piano by Debussy, Ravel, the great violinist Eugene Ysaÿe, and Ray Granlund, a living and very eclectic American composer.

Oh yes—there will be a Bach sonata, too.

The performance, titled “Six Degrees of Separation,” will be at 7:30 p.m. Saturday (June 6) in Grusin Hall of the CU Imig Music Building. Concert pianist Mina Gajić will perform with violinist Zachary Carrettin, the music director of the Bach Festival. Tickets can be purchased online.

The program covers five composers, four centuries (from the 18th to the 21st), and a glittering array of styles. None of which exactly explains the “Six Degrees,” which seems to refer to all the ways the other composers are related back to Bach. Indeed, it has been a theme of the festival this year to celebrate not only the music of Bach, but the music that he inspired through the centuries.

“Bach had an enormous influence on virtually every subsequent composer,” Carrettin says. “For example, composers studied Bach’s approaches to form and harmony, and especially counterpoint. And also there are commonalities in the priorities of the composers chosen for this concert.”

One of those commonalities, Carrettin explains, is the exploration of musical ideas from other cultures and nationalities.

Zachary Carrettin

Zachary Carrettin

“Bach was influenced by his German organ predecessors, but also wrote frequently in the popular Italian and French styles,” he says. Similarly, “Ray [Granlund] wrote a piece that is supposed to be a tango, and yet has the rhythmic influence of a waltz. And Debussy’s sense of color and cross-cultural explorations cover styles from different countries. Flamenco, blues, wooden flute sounds—all of these are heard in the Violin and Piano Sonata.”

Eugene Ysaÿe

Eugene Ysaÿe

Another obvious connection with Bach is provided by the Sonata for solo violin by Eugene Ysaÿe, a violinist who was both a contemporary and a friend of Debussy. “Ysaÿe wrote six sonatas for unaccompanied violin, and they’re modeled on the six sonatas and partitas that Bach wrote for unaccompanied violin,” Carrettin says. “This sonata begins with movement called ‘Obsession,’ which includes multiple quotations of Bach, from the E-major Partita for solo violin.”

While Debussy, Ravel and Ysaÿe were contemporaries, Carrettin included Granlund as a way of tying the diverse program together, from Bach forward. “I think the composer that bridges this program together is the living composer Raymond Granlund,” he says. “His work is harmonically influenced by impressionism, expressionism, jazz and various world musics, but also his contrapuntal writing is exquisite.”

Claude Debussy

Claude Debussy

Beyond these musical and stylistic connections among the composers, Carrettin finds more subtle connections to Bach that he calls poetic: “Debussy once failed a piano exam at the [Paris] Conservatory, because his Bach was, and I quote, ‘too expressive.’ So the program brings up a conversation not only about the connections between the composers, but also the playing styles and how we play Debussy now, in the 21st century, and how we play Bach now.”

For Carrettin, the answer to “how we play Bach” is defiantly non-dogmatic. He has played it with historic instruments; he has also played Bach on electric violin, and interwoven Bach’s music with the music of John Cage. Going into Grussin Hall, he and Gajić will be playing instruments that post-date both Bach and Debussy.

“For this performance, Mina [Gajić ] will be playing one of the extraordinary nine-foot Steinway pianos owned by the university,” he explains. “I’ll be playing a violin made in Chicago in 1963 by a great maker, I and I’ll be playing what we call a modern bow.”

Without going into the intricacies of violin bow history, that means the style of bow developed around 1780—after Bach’s lifetime but well before Debussy—that provides greater tension on the bow hairs. This in turn allows more pressure on the strings, and therefore greater volume.

“The equipment is an interesting question,” Carrettin continues. “When Mina and I rehearse we encounter such fascinating moments of crossroads. She has years of experience playing harpsichords, fortepianos, and especially 19th-century historic pianos, but now she’s playing this recital on a modern Steinway. And I have years of playing Baroque and classical period instruments with sheep-gut strings and convex archaic bows and no chin rests.

“The techniques of playing are different, but also what’s possible on the [modern] instruments is quite different. The timbre of a modern piano will shed light on different aspects inherent in Bach’s compositions. The same with the violin. The fingerings one chooses, or whether to elongate a phrase or break it up into smaller rhetorical statements—sometimes we make these decisions based on what instrument we’re using, and what the strengths are of that instrument.”

As for those famous six degrees of separation, here are some additional thoughts to ponder: Carrettin traces his violin instruction back to Archangelo Corelli, an Italian older contemporary of Bach; almost every pianist in the world can trace their teachers back to Beethoven, who studied Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier; and even the modern Steinway grand can trace its lineage back to Bach’s time, and the invention of the fortepiano by Bartolomeo Cristofori around 1700.

But you’ll have to find your own connections to Kevin Bacon.

# # # # #

Johann_Sebastian_Bach

J.S. Bach

“Six Degrees of Separation”
Presented by the Boulder Bach Festival
Mina Gajić, piano, and Zachary Carrettin, violin
Music of Bach, Debussy, Ysaÿe, Ravel and Granlund
7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 6
Grusin Hall, Imig Music Building, CU Boulder
Tickets

PROGRAM:
J.S. Bach: Sonata in C Minor for violin and clavier obligato, BWV 1017
Eugene Ysaÿe: Sonata #2 in A Minor for violin solo, “Jacques Thibaud”
Raymond Granlund: TangoPeregrino and TangoNometría
Maurice Ravel: Jeux d’eau (for piano solo)
Claude Debussy: Sonata in G Minor for violin and piano