Ignacio Prego

For lovers of keyboard music of all kinds, here is a weekend feast catered just for you. Four concerts at Cornell will present widely varied music on totally different keyboard instruments. The “Cascade of Keys” starts on Friday, September 6, in Barnes Hall on Steinway pianos with popular local musician John Stetch playing a program called “Jazz Standards for Two Pianos” along with his friend and colleague Doug Johnson. On Saturday, also in Barnes, award-winning Ignacio Prego will give the inaugural concert on Cornell’s latest instrument acquisition, a beautiful new harpsichord, performing music of the baroque period. On Sunday, in Anabel Taylor Chapel, world-renowned player Malcolm Bilson will give a recital of works by Schubert, Beethoven, and Schumann on an original 1830 fortepiano, a recital to be repeated Monday evening. All events begin at 8 p.m.

Jazz pianist John Stetch needs no introduction to local audiences. A favorite around town, Stetch spends most of his time these days in Brooklyn, playing performance gigs in New York City, but he is here in Ithaca often, teaching at both Cornell and Ithaca College. 

Stetch has worked around the world at prestigious jazz venues and festivals, while recording and playing with some of the greats. He has eleven CDs out under his own name and is often heard on CBS and NPR. He has also performed at Mayfest. Doug Johnson is both a jazz and classical pianist who has played at major venues in New York, Canada, and Europe. He has toured and recorded with saxophonist Grace Kelly and with Esperanza Spalding’s quintet. The pianist teaches at Berklee College of Music in Boston, a leading place to study jazz and modern American music, and at Wellesley College.

These two jazz guys met because they shared the same classical piano teacher some fifteen years ago. They became friends and found they have “much the same tastes regarding everything pianistic,” according to Stetch. For their program, it’s mostly jazz standards, some arranged, some not, and some with free improvisation. They plan a couple of solo jazz pieces and will perform Debussy’s “Fêtes,” the second part of the orchestral suite Nocturnes, in a 4-hand arrangement by Ravel.

For something entirely different, on September 7 Spanish harpsichordist and pianist Ignacio Prego will play music of Louis Couperin (uncle of the better-known François), Rameau, Purcell, and J. S. Bach. Prego is the winner of the 2012 Westfield Center International Harpsichord Competition held in the Smithsonian in Washington (this year’s competition is for organists and takes place at Cornell and at Eastman in Rochester later this month). This concert baptizes a new instrument for Cornell, a gift from the Dallas Morse Coors Foundation. 

Rumor has it that, despite all manner of harpsichords available for last year’s competition, including the Smithsonian’s, everyone wanted to play on this one. A replica of a 1785 harpsichord built in Paris by Jacques Germain, it comes here from the workshop of Thomas and Barbara Wolf, who since 1969 have been making reproductions of historical keyboard instruments for the top conservatories and musicians (including Bilson, who has owns two of them). Apparently the harpsichord was only partly finished (the waiting list is about four years) when the person commissioning it backed out. Thomas Wolf contacted the foundation, which has funded other Cornell instruments, and it paid to have the harpsichord completed and then donated it to the university. A master on the harpsichord, David Yearsley, said they had been waiting for such a harpsichord at Cornell and happily this one came earlier than expected.

Malcolm Bilson will play the third and fourth concerts on September 8 and 9. Because Anabel Taylor Chapel is a smaller space, and he routinely brings in large audiences, the same program will be repeated. It opens with two unfinished movements by Schubert, the fourth, marked Allegretto, from Sonata in C major, D. 279, and the first, Allegro moderato, from Sonata in F# major, D. 571. Bilson completed them for his recording of the Schubert sonatas for Hungaroton, finished in 2003. Then he will play the magnificent Sonata in A-flat major, Op. 26, of Beethoven, with an opening theme and variations movement and one of the great funeral marches in the repertory. 

Two works by Schumann complete the program, Novellette in F major, Op. 21, # 1, and Kreisleriana, Op. 16, and Bilson showed me how this particular piano responds to Schumann’s music. He ran through some measures of the Kreisleriana opening, and said, “You can really hear the bass, can’t you? You don’t hear it on the modern piano.” Then I heard the ending, where he uses the moderator (a pedal device that inserts cloth strips into the strings to soften the tone). The contrast was subtle and incredibly beautiful. 

This fortepiano was built in the 1830s in Vienna by Joseph Simon and restored in Palermo, Italy, where Bilson found and purchased it. After completion of necessary papers and shipment to the United States, there was considerable wrangling over government regulations concerning the ivory keys. The subsequent delays and exposure to cold had damaged the instrument, so off it went to Massachusetts where it was finished and restored to a perfect state by Robert Loomis, a dear friend and great piano technician who died in June this year. His widow will be attending the concerts, which are dedicated to his memory. 

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