Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Teen Opera Players Visit Piano Museum

By Elisabeth Williams
A 16-year-old classical music lover and Seattle Opera Education workshop participant 

My appreciation for music blossomed even further last week, when the workshop I'm in, Seattle Opera's Magic of Mozart Teen Opera Players, visited the home of University of Washington Music Professor Dr. George Bozarth. Roughly 25 of us crammed into a room full of pianos as we looked on excitedly. Dr. Bozarth and Tamara Friedman have collected pianos up to 300 years old, all housed in the Seattle Early Keyboard Museum. The pianos ranged from a foot-and-a-half long keyboard, to those closely resembling modern grand pianos. But the most wonderful thing about this museum was that the pianos weren't behind a Plexiglas wall. Most were tuned to the correct period sound and ready to be played! 

Our group listened intently as Dr. Bozarth talked about the history of each piano, and did a demonstration for each one. Starting in the early 1700s, the first keyboard instruments were closer to harpsichords, probably starting with the archicembalo (a name meaning harp harpsichord).

During the Classical Period, pianos had keys that were about half the height and 1/5 the weight of modern counterparts. Some early pianos had switched colors of black and white keys, as well as an occasional knee pedal. When played, the pianos all sounded unique. My favorite piano, the fortepiano, had a bright, clear tone.

The piano’s wonderful staccato abilities influenced many of Mozart’s brilliant melodic works and comedies. Pianos started possessing deeper, warmer, more sustained tones as time progressed, including higher tuning standards.

Participants in Seattle Opera's Teen Opera Players "Magic of Mozart" workshop meet George Bozarth, a professor of Music History and Theory at UW. Bozarth specializes in 19th-century studies, especially the music of Johannes Brahms and musical life in Boston. He is also interested in the early history of the piano. Mark Allwein photo
While I have always appreciated orchestral music, I haven’t had much experience learning about music without words. By learning about pianos and how they influenced compositions, I confirmed my belief that one must marry an instrument’s natural abilities with emotion, as is so brilliantly integrated by composers.

As we concluded our tour, some students got the invaluable gift of performing their Lieder with a piano from the period the song was actually written. Finishing the bites of our kindly-baked muffins, we left the museum not only with knowledge of pianos, but how important instruments are to any composition.

Note from Sarah Potter, Music Administrator at Seattle Opera:
Dr. Bozarth and his wife Tamara Friedman have been a delight to work with for their generosity and infectious passion for their collection of period keyboard instruments. We first met them in January of 2011 when the maestro for our Barber of Seville, Dean Williamson, wanted a historically correct instrument for the show. Dr. Bozarth agreed to provide a forte piano as a personal favor to Maestro Williamson. During the course of that production our top-notch stage crew demonstrated that we could take proper care of their instruments; so now we are fortunate to be able to rent all of our period keyboards from them. Most recently Maestro Wedow played a forte piano in Don Giovanni and our upcoming Semele will feature both a virginal and harpsichord. When I called to inquire if Dr. Bozarth even had a virginal, he replied “I have two you can choose from!”