Saturday, April 12, 2014

Talking to harpsichordist Mark Kroll

On March 9th 2014, I met with harpsichordist Mark Kroll in a peaceful garden café in Jerusalem. Accompanied by his wife, violinist Carol Lieberman, Maestro Kroll was in Israel to perform, hold master classes, record and visit with colleagues. Mark Kroll has earned worldwide recognition as a harpsichordist, scholar, and educator in a career spanning more than 40 years. Professor emeritus at Boston University, he has published scholarly editions of the music of Hummel, Geminiani, Charles Avison and Francesco Scarlatti and is the author of several books.

PH: Mark Kroll, do you come from a musical family?

Mark Kroll: Yes. Musical, but not a family of professional musicians. My father never took lessons but he always played the piano. He played by ear. My mother was a poet of sorts and she loved to write. Together they wrote Broadway-style songs of the ‘40s and ‘50s. They had an arranger. The songs were really very, very good! I even have a little demo recording they made of them. They were hoping to break into Broadway, but they did not manage to. That was the music with which I grew up, plus, of course, the major classical repertoire. My parents also took me to live performances as often as they could, including Leonard Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concerts”.

PH: When did you start playing music?

MK: In those days everyone had a piano and every Jewish boy and girl learned to play an instrument. I started piano lessons at age six. I was a pianist and, till age 15; all I wanted to play was Khachaturian, Liszt and Rachmaninoff.

PH: When did you start playing the harpsichord?

MK: I heard the harpsichord when I was 15 and at age 17 I simply switched to it. That was in 1963. I started taking private harpsichord lessons in New York, where I grew up. Where I was studying at Brooklyn College there were no harpsichord lessons, but it was there that I learned to play basso continuo; we did a lot of early music there, even with some members of Noah Greenberg’s “New York Pro Musica” who were on the faculty. My first harpsichord teacher was Louis Bagger. I was 17 and knew little of anything about the harpsichord. I also started “jobbing” (freelancing) at the time, including several gigs at Carnegie Hall and Town Halls.

PH: Tell me about Louis Bagger.

MK: He is not so well known today. He was a large man, learned and eccentric, a typical upper west-side New Yorker. He lived in a big, old apartment with floor-to-ceiling books and cats everywhere. Sometimes when he opened a harpsichord there would be a cat sleeping inside. He taught me everything that I needed to know in the beginning about articulation. He had worked with both Leonhardt and Kirkpatrick. He really gave me an idea about what touch, sensitive articulation and expressive playing are. He was the scariest guy I had worked with up to that time but a good teacher.

PH: Where did you continue harpsichord studies?

MK: After graduating from Brooklyn College, I decided to audition to take graduate studies with Ralph Kirkpatrick at Yale University.

PH: What do you remember about the audition?

MK: I took the bus from New York to New Haven, Connecticut. I had a 5 o’clock audition. Walking in at 4:50, he was still giving a lesson. There I was, waiting to play for the greatest harpsichordists in the world…the harpsichordist who had recorded all the works of Bach twice – once on harpsichord and once on clavichord – and who had written the book on Domenico Scarlatti. I stood there asking myself what I was doing there and almost walked out! Kirkpatrick was trained as an art historian and I love engravings, so, for the first hour of our meeting, we had a discussion in German about Dürer and 16th century engravers. Finally, going to the harpsichord, he asked if I could read a figured bass. Luckily, I had been doing that and, for the next hour, he had me reading figured basses. Then he brought out the score of the Bach c minor Violin and Harpsichord Sonata, requesting that I play the harpsichord part and sing the top line. He then gave me a fugue to play, asking me to sing the tenor line and play the other three parts; that was the third hour. He then asked me what I had brought to play for him, but by that time I was so exhausted I was not sure I could have played a c major scale! After finishing, I was convinced he would never accept me as a student, but as he walked me out, he said “I look forward to seeing you next year”. I received a full scholarship to study with Ralph Kirkpatrick.

PH: Tell me about studying with Kirkpatrick.

MK: That was an experience! Lessons could be anywhere from one to six hours. He had two students; those were the days when a full professor had two students! Lessons with him were just like that audition. They were always on Fridays and I was so nervous before them…two years of never sleeping on Thursday nights. But we would work on the music of Scarlatti, Bach, Couperin, Froberger, William Byrd – you name it - in ways few do nowadays. He would also tell me about how he went into the Marciana Library in Venice and how he first saw the Scarlatti manuscripts. We used to look at the copies he had made of them in 1946 and 1947.

PH: Your teaching methods are similar to his.

MK: Correct. Because it worked and still does. Kirkpatrick’s methodology is all set out in the introduction to his Schirmer edition of the “60 Scarlatti Sonatas”. For example, he wrote that the way to understand the melodic contour of a phrase is to sing it; to understand the rhythmic nature of a phrase - dance it. And that is what we did in his lessons. His knowledge was significant but he never actually taught “technique”. He simply got rid of any student within a year who did not have adequate technique. His was the old method of teaching. You had to be tough and accept his way of teaching. For example, before my first recital, I played him the whole of the Bach Partita in D major, with repeats, – all 35 minutes of it. After sitting there for a while he looked up and said “Well, you have proved to me that you are not totally unmusical.” This, by the way, was a compliment! In those two years of tension and stress, I learned more about music than I had in the previous twenty! And, deep down, I know he was fond of me.

PH: Yale University is known for its musical instrument collection.

MK: Indeed. Its keyboard collection is one of the best in the world – in particular, a wonderful collection of harpsichords.

PH: Did you stay in touch with Kirkpatrick?

MK: Well, he was not the warmest of people. We lost touch, although we did speak several times in 1981, when I invited him to play a solo recital at the first Boston Early Music Festival, which, by the way, I founded along with Friedrich and Inge von Huene and Scott Kosofsky. I then called him a year or so before he died…perhaps in 1984. He said he had heard my recording of Scarlatti and thought it was very good. I think that was the first real compliment I had ever received from him.

PH: What followed your graduate studies?

MK: The first teaching job I had was at the University of California, Santa Cruz and I went up and down the coast performing. It is one thing to know how to play the harpsichord. Now I was learning the art of recitals. I then moved to Toronto, as that was where my wife Carol Lieberman was teaching. We gave the first ever Baroque violin and harpsichord recital in Toronto. We also recorded a lot for the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation). Then I moved to Boston and gave a debut recital there and in New York. Boston at that time was so exciting for harpsichordists; Boston had 11 full-time harpsichord builders and, during these golden years, there was a harpsichord recital every week. I got the job teaching at Boston University and built up my program in harpsichord and historical performance there; I retired to do more performing and writing.

PH: Can you talk about your performing career?

MK: I started by playing in the United States, then performing in Europe and South America and then on to the Middle East and Asia. We (Carol and I) were actually the first American Baroque violinist and harpsichordist to play in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. They tell me I am the first American harpsichordist to have played in Bangkok. And I always teach wherever I go. I have played in Hong Kong, where there has been much harpsichord activity and there are some fine harpsichords there. I have played a lot of recitals and concertos (both Baroque and contemporary) and, since 1979, I have been harpsichordist for the Boston Symphony.

PH: What about contemporary music?

MK: I perform a lot of contemporary music. One of the things I wrote in my book on harpsichord playing is that the harpsichord died and had needed revival once and that, if we do not write music for it now, it will die again. Well, this may be an exaggeration but by playing the music written for it and encouraging composers means that it becomes a viable- and not a just historical instrument, with equal rights with other instruments like the piano, violin or other “mainstream” instruments.

PH: You did not come out of the European early music revival.

MK: No, I did not. Many people think it came out of Europe. For example, a lot of people like to think that early music was “invented” in Amsterdam or Vienna in the 1960s or England in the ‘70s. It was not invented anywhere. In fact, during the ‘50s and ‘60s we were at the forefront in America. I myself had an antique style harpsichord in 1963 - a copy of a Flemish instrument built by William Hyman!

PH: What repertoire do you like to play most?

MK: More than any other repertoire, I love to play François Couperin’s “Pièces de Clavecin”. I feel I understand this music. There is no doubt that this is the finest Baroque harpsichord music. Nothing is better written for the instrument. It is also guaranteed to draw the fewest people to a concert. Bach and Scarlatti will draw the most. Well, having studied with Kirkpatrick, I of course play their music, but also the great works from the 16th and 17th centuries, those of Byrd, Frescobaldi, Froberger, Louis Couperin and Chambonnières. Incidentally, Kirkpatrick was especially fond of Chambonnières’ music.

PH: I understand you play a lot of solo recitals.

MK: Yes, but not just. I do a lot of duo work with my wife, violinist Carol Lieberman. We met at Yale as graduate students in 1969; we played some good gigs, mostly performing at weddings for 25 dollars a night. At that time, Carol was the top violinist at Yale, going for her doctorate.

PH: In Baroque violin?

MK: No, in modern violin. But I led her astray! And we have since played Baroque music all over the world, while Carol also continues on “modern” violin, playing Brahms, Bartok, Messiaen and Carter.

PH: Tell me something about your duo repertoire.

MK: Our first recording was of the sonatas of Simon Leduc…mid-1740s French sonatas, fabulous music, almost Classical, with fine violin- and continuo writing. We also made one of the earliest recordings of all the Bach violin sonatas on Baroque violin. That was in 1974. We did a lot of recording in those years. Apart from the major repertoire, Carol and I have also performed wonderful sonatas for obbligato harpsichord and violin by C.P.E.Bach, J.C.Bach and J-J.Mondonville, plus lots of Biber and even some violin (!) sonatas of D.Scarlatti. Apart from performing with Carol, I have close colleagues in Germany; I play a lot there with a superb gamba player and Baroque ‘cellist - Thomas Fritzsch. We play with colleagues in England and we have played a lot in Rome. In the 1970s, after playing in the Palazzo della Cancelleria (Palace of the Chancellery), I was told that that was where Corelli had played. Because of its fine acoustics, that was the first time I really heard what the harpsichord was supposed to sound like: the building has frescos, hard walls everywhere, marble floors and ceilings at least 40 feet tall. We played in Europe as much as we could, not only because of good audiences but also because of better acoustic spaces.

PH: What about the fortepiano and other early pianos?

MK: I have a copy of a Johann Andreas Stein five-octave fortepiano, a copy of an 1805 Anton Walter fortepiano (5½ octaves) and our latest treasure is an 1842 Pleyel on which Chopin played! Carol and I recorded the Schubert Sonatinas on fortepiano and we plan to record Schumann and Moscheles – on the Pleyel.

PH: What are your expectations of the harpsichord?

MK: I always expect the harpsichord to be an extremely expressive instrument: that is not done with agogic accents, with pushing and pulling the tempo but with subtle articulation. The basic sound of the piano and harpsichord involves decay; you play with the silences that occur between the notes. This trait is not exploited as much as it could be. For example, François Couperin spoke of music having its prose and its poetry. My teacher always taught me, as I also teach my students, that the harpsichord has vowels and consonants. When I teach, I have my pupils make up words to the piece they are learning and then try to make the harpsichord do the same. Sometimes I sing the student a song in French or German and then request them to play the harpsichord that way. The student has to believe the instrument can reproduce these things. When I ask them to make the harpsichord sing, I really mean it!

PH: What prompted you to write “Playing the Harpsichord Expressively”?

MK: On retiring from teaching, I worried that nobody would continue my way of playing and teaching, so my colleagues suggested I write a book. I thought they were crazy. How can you put in print all that you do in person by showing, playing and explaining? Well, I seem to have succeeded. It is basically a giant lesson presented exactly how I teach and play, including lots of historical information to back up what I am teaching and why. It was not an easy task as one wants to show things. Of the 100 pages, half are filled with examples. I wrote it so that people could put it on the harpsichord and go through it step by step. It got good responses and I am proud that a young French harpsichord teacher is translating it into French.

PH: You have been involved with J.N.Hummel’s music.

MK: Yes, first through his transcriptions. In the late 1990s, I became fascinated to know who this person was and did a lot of research on him. A student of Mozart, he lived with his teacher from age 8 to ten. Haydn’s successor at the Esterházy estate, Hummel wrote Masses and choral music, the latter genre being considered his best music. Schubert modeled his “Trout” Quintet on Hummel’s quintet version of his Septet op.74. The more I listen to Hummel’s “real” music I realize that he was a major musical figure too few people know about - not only as a very fine composer (well, less than Beethoven) but the most famous musician and pianist in Europe. He was a virtuoso pianist and his writing for the piano was accordingly difficult. The German teacher and writer Karl Friedrich Zelter claimed that Hummel, in hindsight, was the first Liszt. When I wrote my Hummel biography, there was only one piece everybody knew – the Trumpet Concerto. But he has written some wonderful piano concertos, including the A minor piano concerto, which was traditionally played by 19th century virtuoso pianists making their debut, among them, Schumann, Clara Schumann, Franck, Grieg, Brahms and Liszt. He also wrote lots of great and extremely virtuosic piano music. He was an influential teacher, writing a very large treatise on playing the piano which included 2000 exercises!

PH: On what piano would Hummel have played?

MK: He played on a wide range, often whatever was available to him on his many tours, like Broadwoods, Grafs, Pleyels and Erards. You need 6½ octaves to play Hummel’s music; these pianos had that range.

PH: What are you writing at the moment?

MK: A biography of another great musician - Ignaz Moscheles. It is being published in November of this year. Moscheles was Jewish, the son of a cloth merchant. He married Charlotte Emden, from the prestigious Emden family in Hamburg, also Jewish. Moscheles and his wife converted to Christianity (as did Mendelssohn), raised four wonderful children and lived a long happy life. His daughter Emily, a virtuoso, studied with Chopin. At a young age, she played the very challenging Mendelssohn d minor Piano Trio with Joachim. Another daughter, Clara, sang for Rossini. In his last 14 years, Moscheles taught at the Leipzig Conservatory, where his students were Sir Arthur Sullivan, Edvard Grieg and Sir George Henschel. (Henschel was a conductor of the Boston Symphony for a while.) Moscheles and Mendelssohn were very close friends – I have devoted an entire chapter to that friendship. In his diary, in 1824, Moscheles wrote about meeting the Mendelssohn family in Berlin, referring to it as “a family like no other”. As I conclude in my Preface to this book, Moscheles was a superb musician and a superb human being who was and remains a man worth knowing.

PH: Mark Kroll, many thanks for giving of your time and sharing so much interesting information.

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