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Archive for Sunday, March 4, 2007

Old piano is professor’s forte

March 4, 2007

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Janice Wenger rehearses on the University of Missouri's new fortepiano in Whitmore Recital Hall in Columbia, Mo. The fortepiano is an exact reproduction of the Viennese instrument designed by Anton Walter in 1802.

Janice Wenger rehearses on the University of Missouri's new fortepiano in Whitmore Recital Hall in Columbia, Mo. The fortepiano is an exact reproduction of the Viennese instrument designed by Anton Walter in 1802.

— Janice Wenger wants people to hear what Beethoven heard.

The 54-year-old University of Missouri-Columbia piano professor traveled across the country and even to Europe to learn as much as she could about the fortepiano, an instrument used by some of the great composers.

Recently, she's let Columbia in on her findings.

"It's all about the sound," Wenger said. "It teaches you how the music of Mozart and Hayden was articulated."

Wenger played the school's new piano - an exact reproduction of the 1802 Viennese instrument at a recent recital in Columbia.

Compared to the two grand pianos in Wenger's second-floor office in the University's Fine Arts Building, the fortepiano looks like a pint-size replica. During a private demonstration, Wenger's fingers danced across the cow-bone keys, her knees activated hidden effect levers, and the fortepiano produced cheery notes.

"He's playing with it," Wenger said while performing one of Beethoven's songs to demonstrate the instrument's range. "He's having fun with it."

An ancestor of the modern piano, the fortepiano features a wooden frame, hammers canvassed in leather and 68 keys for a 5 1/2-octave range. Today's pianos feature iron frames, hammers covered in felt and 88 keys for a 7 1/2-octave range.

The school's new instrument is the creation of piano craftsman Paul McNulty, who became interested in the field in the mid-'80s when he read Studs Terkel's book "Working," which combined narratives from folks who worked all sort of jobs. "The happiest guy in the book struck me as the piano tuner," McNulty said.

A music fan but mediocre performer all his life, McNulty went to school for piano tuning in Boston, became a piano technician's assistant and started fooling around with building his own instruments.

In November 1986, McNulty went on tour with a fortepianist in Europe. The performer's fortepiano broke, and McNulty had his first creation sent in as a replacement.

The pianist loved it, and McNulty found his calling.

The 53-year-old is now working on his 114th fortepiano in the Czech Republic - he moved there 10 years ago to be closer to his wood source.

McNulty will make 10 fortepianos this year and has a waiting list of at least a year.

Wenger found McNulty as she went deeper and deeper into the genre of the fortepiano and the emerging movement to play memorable pieces with the instrument on which they were composed.

On a semester sabbatical during winter 2005, Wenger traveled to several schools that had fortepianos.

"When you know it's the sound that they heard, it seems to bring the music to life a bit differently," she said. "The world is impressed by how good it looks, but the musicians are like, 'Oh my gosh, it sounds so good.' "

When the professor of 29 years returned to Columbia, she asked Melvin Platt, director of the School of Music, whether the school could pick up a used replica. Platt directed her to order a brand-new one.

"We wanted to provide the same kind of quality education at Missouri that the same kind of students in other areas have been receiving," he said. "It's an attempt to get back to authentic performances that would have been heard at the time the music was composed."

Between performances, the fortepiano needs just the right temperatures and humidity levels to remain in tip-top shape, and it must be tuned every day and played as much as possible to keep the parts in sync.

Wenger said that won't be a problem. "There's nothing like a performance to get you to play three to four hours a day," she said.

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