Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Tickling the Ivories

Look, Ma! No keys!
If irregularly timed and vegetable-less meals were one irritation of our choir trip through Central Europe, the other was generally poor instruments. Being a conservatory-trained musician, Dear Husband, DMA, was looking forward to sharing music inspired by the places we went and some of the famous composers who worked there. Alas, it was not to be. Every time we arrived at a venue (with the exception of Vienna), the question was, What can DH play? Is there a working organ? Will he be allowed to use it? How big will the keyboard and pedals be? How many stops will it have? Is there a piano? Or at least a keyboard?

In Budapest, DH could not use the recently refurbished antique organ, and there wasn't a piano, but both the modern organ and the keyboard were decent replacements. For our scheduled but informal concert in Eisenstadt (above), there was no instrument on the stage whatsoever, although DH had seen a grand piano in promotional images. Turns out it was locked on a lift behind the curtains, so that concert was a capella, and he sang with the group.

Things went well enough at the Karlskirche in Vienna, but the St. Nicholas church in Prague turned out to be a disappointment. They don't let outside groups use their beautiful, refurbished, antique organ (photo in the last post). No matter that DH has a doctoral degree (in piano) and decades of experience (on the organ): no exceptions. Instead, there was a weak electronic keyboard (the black rectangle in the background the photo, right) and a sorry excuse for an organ, a single electronic keyboard attached to a set of pedals. DH used it for the one song for which the audience really needed to hear the piano/organ part and the keyboard for everything else; there was no organ music on this concert.

Now, I can understand the organizers' hesitancy to allow just any Joe Shmoe off the street play the organ, especially after its refurbishment. But if I were an audience member, I would have been appalled to think the church promotes itself as a venue for concerts, brings in groups that (supposedly) have talent, and then I have to listen to such "machines," as the maestra calls them. As if to salt the wound, after the concert, the man running it presented the choir director with a CD...of a recital on the organ!

After we got back to that States, I happened to meet some doctoral students in composition, one of whom has had works premiered in Prague. I told him our story, and he agreed that the venue operators in the city and at St. Nicholas are protective of their instruments. So it wasn't just us.

Our tour guide must have felt sorry for DH, because he used his organization's connections to get DH a half hour of "play time" on the mechanical pipe organ from 1702 at St. Francis of Assisi, a beautiful baroque church at the foot of the Charles Bridge. The church belongs to the Order of the Knights of the Cross with a Red Star, the only knights order founded in Bohemia, and it wasn't destroyed by Hussites in the 15th century because of the order's charitable work with the poor and sick. The building's architecture is interesting, having a tall cupola with a fresco of "The Last Judgment" and underground chambers of the earlier, Gothic iteration of the church, visible through three "peek holes" in the floor.

To the right you can see the keyboard that Mozart himself supposedly once played, when he was in Prague for the opening(s) of his opera(s). DH joked he wasn't going to wash his hands anymore, lest he wash off what he was sure was oil from the fingertips of the genius himself. It wasn't a very big organ--like the one in the Karlskirche, not big enough to play most Bach organ works. But the designers did use a clever little trick to increase the lower range of the keyboard. Take a look at the photo to the right. You might have noticed that the white and black keys are reversed. DH says he doesn't know when the convention switched to lower keys being white and upper keys being black. Now, if you look just above his hands on the lower manual, and to the right on the upper manual, you can see a couple of "double-decker" white keys. They're for playing a short, broken octave with split keys. I would try to explain it to you but it would be a disaster, so just click on the link in the previous sentence and scroll down to "broken octave" if you're interested.

Directly above DH's hands are a couple of turned wooden knobs. (There's also one in the upper foreground of the shot.) Those are the stops. Pulling one of the fourteen stops engaged the mechanism that regulated air flow through the pipes. What was neat is that the part of the console above the manuals has a carved wooden screen in front of it instead of being solid. Every time DH hit a key, we could watch the thin wooden dowels shifting up and down, making a clickityclackety sound that probably wasn't loud enough to disturb listeners down on the floor.

If you can believe it, there was yet more music in store for us on Day 8, so keep reading!

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