Christian Baldini: This Saturday and Sunday (June 11 and 12, 2022), I will have the pleasure of collaborating with the Chamber Music Society of Sacramento conducting two unusual works: Frank Martin’s Petite Symphonie Concertante, featuring Jonathan Salzedo (harpsichord), Kerstin Allvin (harp) and Dmitriy Cogan (piano) as our three soloists, plus a string orchestra led by legendary violinist Bill Barbini (one of the youngest members ever of the New York Philharmonic, and longtime concertmaster of the former Sacramento Symphony). The other work on the program that I will be conducting is Claude Debussy’s Danses (Danse Sacrée, and Danse Profane), for harp and string orchestra, also with Kerstin Allvin as our soloist.
I had the pleasure of asking each of our soloists a few questions about this performance and about the Frank Martin. Below are the answers by Jonathan Salzedo regarding his own impressions about the piece. I asked him to include anything including those things he enjoys, and also what he finds surprising, its context, the end of World War II, and his thoughts about Frank Martin himself.
Jonathan Salzedo: I have known about Frank Martin’s Petite Symphonie Concertante for as long as I have been interested in the harpsichord, at least 55 years. Being somewhat rooted in the 17th and 18th centuries, I never expected that I would get to play it, so this engagement came as an unexpected pleasant surprise.
The harpsichord disappeared from fashion around 1800 and only returned to the concert stage after 1900 with a resurgence of interest in ancient music. While mainstream orchestral instruments evolved, the harpsichord had completed its development by 1800, and the piano took over the role of the keyboard of choice. When the harpsichord was revived by Arnold Dolmetsch, the initial intention was not that it should evolve or that new music should be written for it – keeping the ancient music in museum mode was all that was needed. But by 1945, the harpsichord had not gone unnoticed, and already there were new concertos by Manuel de Falla, Bohuslav Martinu and Francis Poulenc, and it was finding its way into film scores.
The harpsichord Frank Martin had in mind for his 1945 Petite Symphonie Concertante was not the equipment of the 18th century. Between pioneering harpsichordist Wanda Landowska and the Paris piano maker Pleyel, a far more robust harpsichord emerged, able to withstand the demands of the modern concert hall. Martin’s score is marked with specific instructions for effects only possible on that instrument. Pleyel’s robust model did not stand the test of time, and by the 1960’s makers were following Dolmetsch’s lead and basing instruments on 17th and 18th century models. While the “revival” harpsichord still has a few champions, the harpsichord and early music community is almost exclusively using traditional types of harpsichords again. So the first dilemma for the harpsichordist is whether to try to rouse a Pleyel for this piece, or to use today’s equipment, ironically the same equipment that the 18th century player would have used. Pleyels are not so common today, and my choice is to use what I own, built in 1974 by Ted McKnight and styled on a Pascal Taskin instrument from 1769. While I can’t follow all of Martin’s registration recommendations (the equivalent of an organist having different stops available), I have all the tonal variety I need to make the music work.
Did Martin consider the problem of balance with a harpsichord of any kind in an ensemble? Back in the heyday of the harpsichord, its role was to play solos or to have a background role in ensembles. Only a few experimentalists dared to bring the harpsichord into the foreground with a chamber group or orchestra, notably Johann Sebastian Bach and Jean-Philippe Rameau. Even with Pleyel’s robustifications, the harpsichord is not able to come over the top of orchestral sound like a piano. It is an open question whether the harpsichord needs amplification for this work. Had Martin been thoughtful about balance, I would expect to find the harpsichord always accompanied by light instrumentation, and the piano and harp soloists to have soft effects in the trio work. This is not the case. I will be using discreet amplification.
When I tell people I am playing this piece, I am often asked whether I like atonal music. I find myself considering whether this work is atonal. The first twelve notes of the piece form a tone row, rather a communist concept, each of the twelve notes appearing just once. The early sections of the piece fall under the spell of this idea, and one might expect the piece to have the angular qualities we associate with Arnold Schoenberg, the creator of the tone row composition. While this was not an easy piece to get to know, once I became accustomed to its musical ideas, I did not find it atonal. There are always tonal centers to be found. Martin does not necessarily like to stay for long in one key – the music is restless, always moving somewhere. And at times, it is dissonant too, and keys co-exist in a disturbing way. But it never loses the sense of going somewhere, and when it arrives, even fleetingly, one does enjoy the moment. My 50-year career has had a lot to do with exploring the rhetoric of the 17th and 18th centuries, and new music for the harpsichord that I encounter does not always follow those old rhetorical guidelines. But here I find a surprising amount of that kind of rhetoric that references the former age. Among his accomplishments, Frank Martin was a harpsichordist, and it is clear that he knew the idioms of the 18th century.
What else is there in this music? As well as finding a warm version of Schoenberg and fragments that resonate from the 18th century, there is more. The piece can be read as a survey of all that was happening, both in music and in the world outside, at the end of World War II. The world order was in flux, so the piece is restless. The chordal clusters and rhythms of jazz were finding their way into art music, and they too are here. And while the music reflects the ideas of predecessors, it also foreshadows what will come. The March that opens the final section anticipates Henri Mancini’s Pink Panther, and later I hear in embryo Edwin Ashley’s Danger Man theme. And perhaps the biggest surprise of all is that the last page of my part is entirely pentatonic (just using five notes that are pleasant sounding in any combination) and ends with a brisk G major scale. When we reach that point, I am reminded that the first part I play ends in an F minor scale. So there appears to be an over-arching trajectory from the darkness of F minor through many musical trials to the simplicity of a pentatonic mode and finally the brightness of G major; perhaps a reminder that bleak times always contain a seed of hope for a less confused and better future.
Christian Baldini: Why is music is important to you? Is there any advice you want to share with young musicians?
Jonathan Salzedo: What to say to a young musician? It’s not an easy career, many frustrations, a lot of self-doubt, terrible comparisons – but also great joy and the best community you could imagine, because musicians are the only people who will really understand you. When I moved to the USA from England at age 31, I was ready to give up music – I thought I had played out that youthful dream. But if music wants you and you have a bit of willingness, you and music will somehow find each other and have to put up with each other. Now that I am 71, I can’t imagine a life better than the one I have had, mixing music with a whole lot of other interesting stuff, including technology. Having an artistic outlet really does make you a better person, less likely to buy guns and shoot people, more likely to be intrigued by the world and its infinite possibilities. Follow your nose; don’t let anyone else suggest that you should grow up.
British born harpsichordist Jonathan Salzedo is a frequent Freeway Philharmonic contributor in the San Francisco Bay Area. He was an active and occasionally prizewinning pianist in his youth, then planned to study harpsichord with someone famous, but ended up learning what he knows from working with fine musicians with good ideas. With his wife Marion Rubinstein and daughter Laura Jeannin he runs The Albany Consort, a group with a long and impressive track record, though only one (accidental) recording. Jonathan also plays new music with violinist Karen Bentley Pollick, including compositions written for the duo. He actually likes moving and tuning instruments, and considers these to be an important part of the whole harpsichord experience. When not on the road doing gigs, he sings at Congregation Etz Chayim, Palo Alto, and runs a software consulting business.