Unveiling a classic instrument at Skidmore

Skidmore College will unveil its new acquisition, an 1826 Conrad Graf fortepiano at a Sunday concert

Pola Baytelman gushes when she talks about Sunday’s concert at which Skidmore College will unveil its new acquisition: an 1826 Conrad Graf fortepiano. Famed South African fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout will be at the keyboard.

“It’s beautiful and an original, not a replica,” Baytelman said. “There are only 80 in the world.”

Baytelman, who is a pianist and the college’s senior artist-in-residence, has had access to fortepianos before. The college has owned a replica of a 1790 Anton Walter fortepiano for 20 years. It is the kind of instrument that Mozart played.

But an original carries with it the cachet of centuries. Who might have played on it? After all, Graf (1782-1851) was a noted Viennese builder who provided Beethoven with his last piano. And Schumann got a Graf as a wedding present when he married Clara.

Fortepiano recital

WHERE: Zankel Music Center, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs

WHEN: 3 p.m. Sunday

HOW MUCH: $12, $7, $5

MORE INFO: 580-5321, cms.skidmore.edu/events/index.cfm

In this case, the fortepiano had been owned by the family of Brooke Allen, who had kept it in Italy for most of its life. A fortepiano is an early version of the piano that bridged the gap between the harpsichord and the more modern piano.

A little more than two years ago, Allen was looking to find a home for the instrument, with the caveat that he wanted it to be used, Baytelman said. Museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art offered to provide it with a safe place but it would only be part of a collection.

Seeking a home

Connections with Skidmore, however, convinced Allen that the college was the right place for his Graf. So two years ago, he arranged for it to be put on a long-term loan to Skidmore and had it shipped from Italy, initially to restorer Marco De Lallis in Queens. Edward Swenson, a noted fortepiano builder who lives in Trumansburg, Tompkins County, and has restored eight of Graf’s instruments, also became involved. Richard Hester, another local and highly esteemed fortepiano builder, applied the finishing touches.

Hester said the all-wood instrument weighs 300 pounds and had only some issues that needed fixing, such as certain leathers, which mice had eaten, a few leaks and some wire components that needed replacing.

“The instrument is virtually fully original,” he said. “Conservation . . . means to retain all parts and fragments of original materials but strives to blend necessary new bits with original materials to present the sound of the era as honestly as possible.”

Hester had to create what was needed because modern piano parts don’t work in these earlier models, Baytelman said. She also believed the college was the happy recipient of the loan because of Hester’s reputation. “He built our Walter,” she said.

The Graf and Walter differ physically and tonally. Like a harpsichord, the Walter has black keys with the sharps and flats in white. The Graf’s keys are like a contemporary piano, which has the sharps and flats in black and all other keys in white. The Walter can play five octaves with a sound that is crystal clear, Baytelman said. The Graf has six octaves, and with its longer strings gets a bigger sound.

The Walter has knee levers and no foot pedals. The Graf, however, has five pedals: a damper or loud pedal, one that softens the sound, an una corda pedal that reduces volume, one that makes a sound like a bassoon and drum, and one that makes a bell sound.

What is consistent between the two is that the weight of the keys is lighter, which makes it easier to play fast passages.

“A pianist needs no arm weight because the depth of the key is less than on a modern piano,” Baytelman said.

This means that today’s pianists work harder to produce those streams of notes compared to what a fortepianist needs to do the same thing.

Last April, the Graf got its first workout with a recital by seven college students who played pieces by Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. Because the Graf is considered delicate, they played more on the Walter. This included the amount of time each got to practice on the Graf.

“You can’t push it too much,” Baytelman said.

Bezuidenhout will follow the same procedure. The first part of the program will be on the Walter with two Mozart sonatas. The second part will be four Schubert impromptus on the Graf.

Global reputation

Baytelman said Bezuidenhout was asked to play because of his solid reputation, having performed with most of the world’s leading period ensembles, such as the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, Chamber Orchestra of Europe and the Handel & Haydn Society.

He also maintains an extensive recital schedule from Bruges to Carnegie Hall and often serves as accompanist for such artists as Frans Bruggen, Daniel Hope, Viktoria Mullova and Christopher Hogwood. Since 2009, Bezuidenhout has embarked on a long-term recording partnership with Harmonia USA. Bezuidenhout, who is 32, is a guest professor at the Eastman School of Music and the Schola Cantorum in Basel.

Swenson will give a pre-concert lecture one hour before the concert.

Categories: Life and Arts

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