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Week of 13 February 1998

Vol. I, No. 20


An Italian composer's reign in Spain

World's Scarlatti masters coming for BU festival

by Michael B. Shavelson

Think of a composer who was known to his contemporaries as much for his virtuoso keyboard playing as for his compositions, a composer whose music is characterized by the difficulty of its fingerings, by its exoticism, and by its big chords and unusual harmonics. Rachmaninov maybe? Liszt perhaps?

No, the man Mark Kroll has in mind lived two centuries before Rachmaninov. "Domenico Scarlatti is a fascinating character and a brilliant, unique composer," says Kroll, who is professor of harpsichord and fortepiano at the School for the Arts and director of the School's early music program. "Our Scarlatti Festival is going to give audiences perhaps the most complete picture ever of him. It's the first such festival in Boston in memory. It might be the first, period."

The Festival, which Kroll organized, runs from Thursday, February 19, through Sunday the 21st, and features both concerts and lectures. (See Calendar, page 8.) Some of the most distinguished names in Scarlatti studies and early music will participate, says Kroll. "We have Sharon Baker and John Daverio from BU, and several other wonderful players who will be coming in for the festival: Emilia Fadini from Milan, Genoveva Gálvez from Madrid, Joel Cohen from Austria, Carol Lieberman from Holy Cross, and John Solum from Vassar." Kroll will also perform.

Some of the pieces they'll play, recently unearthed in manuscript, are being performed for the first time since Scarlatti's day, says Kroll. "We've known Scarlatti as a spectacular harpsichordist and as a keyboard composer -- and at the Festival you'll be able to hear 40 of his harpsichord sonatas -- but we'll be performing chamber and vocal works that are absolutely unknown. Musicians and audiences will be getting a new understanding of him as a composer."

A series of lectures will enhance that understanding. "Malcolm Boyd, one of the leading Scarlatti scholars in the world today, is coming from Wales to talk about Scarlatti's operas; Roberto Pagano is flying in from Italy to discuss his life; and Frederick Hammond is coming from Bard College to tell us about the lost Scarlatti manuscripts. Jim Iffland, from the BU department of modern foreign languages and literatures, will present a lecture on court life in Bourbon Spain."

That Spanish connection is key to understanding the composer.

The son of the opera composer Alessandro Scarlatti, Domenico was born in Naples in 1685 -- the same year J. S. Bach and Handel were born. "Like the children of Bach and Couperin," explains Kroll, "Domenico took after his father and composed operas in Italy. He was a good opera composer, but not a very good opera composer."

Scarlatti went to Lisbon, where he became music teacher to Princess Maria Barbara and began composing his Esercizi (Études) and his 550 harpsichord sonatas for her. When she married the heir to the Spanish throne, Scarlatti went to Madrid with her and remained there until his death in 1757. "Spain absolutely overwhelmed him," says Kroll.

"He heard flamenco, religious music, Spanish folk music. It was completely new and it liberated him as a composer. When you listen to his harpsichord music, you hear evocations of Spain -- guitars, castanets. This was from a man who knew the instrument incredibly well and who exploited all of its tonal resources and colors, along with all the virtuosic possibilities of the instrument. So today listeners are surprised by the big leaps, the hand-crossings, the crashing chords, and the amazing dissonances. The harmonic language is dazzling."

"Had he remained in Italy," surmises Kroll, "he would have been a pretty good opera composer, certainly not as good as his father. As it happened, he turned out to be the greatest Spanish composer that Italy ever produced."

Mark Kroll: from Scarlatti to . . . Slovenia

Mark Kroll

SFA Professor Mark Kroll, here in his practice room, has invited several leading early music authorities and players to BU's Scarlatti Festival, February 19 to 21. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

When Mark Kroll isn't running early music festivals, he's still running. Running to Europe, to the recording studio, to Carnegie Hall, to SFA.

Kroll for some time has been among the most respected names in early music, and was lauded by the Washington Post as "the finest exponent of the harpsichord in America." His most recent recording -- his 28th -- gave listeners their first chance in more than a century and a half to hear Johann Nepomuk Hummel's 1823 arrangements of Mozart's symphonies 35 and 36 for fortepiano and three players (Boston Skyline Records). The CD has been selling well and was the subject of a thoughtful feature in the Sunday New York Times. "Before the phonograph and radio," says Kroll, "this is how the middle class heard new orchestral music -- by playing transcriptions such as these." This spring he is scheduled to record similar arrangements of Beethoven's first and sixth symphonies.

In the case of the Hummel/Mozart, Kroll didn't only play the works, he discovered them when he was performing in Germany a few years ago. "A harpsichordist has to be an archaeologist," he says. His digging has yielded so much that he's been awarded grants for further research in Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Croatia, Italy, and Poland.

His Poland trip will include a stop at the world's number one harpsichord competition, in Warsaw, not as a performer, but as a judge -- the first American so honored. His calendar also has him down for a master class and recital in Slovenia and concerts featuring the Hummel/Beethoven symphonies in Leipzig and Prague.

But while Kroll is an early-music master, he is also devoted to the entire harpsichord repertory -- which picked up again in the early 1900s after a 100-year luftpause. Two years ago he performed with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress. He has toured with various orchestras in Francis Poulenc's Concert champêtre and last fall played Frank Martin's Petite symphonie concertante in Carnegie Hall and Montreal with Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony.

Marianna Pineda Prize established

A distinguished member of the Boston art community and of the School for the Arts, Marianna Pineda lived, worked, and taught in Boston for almost 40 years, until her death in 1996. She was an important mentor for members of the current generation of sculptors, including many Boston University alumni and faculty members.

To celebrate Pineda's dedication to her craft, her husband, SFA Professor Emeritus Harold Tovish, has joined with other family members and friends to establish the Marianna Pineda Prize Fund. The prize will be awarded to a graduating student in sculpture pursuing a career in the field.

Contributions to the fund may be sent to: The Marianna Pineda Prize Fund, Boston University School for the Arts, 855 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, MA 02215. Checks may be made out to: Trustees of Boston University, in memory of Marianna Pineda. For further information, please call 353-7293.

Marianna Pineda: A Retrospective continues through March 1 at the BU Art Gallery.