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Thursday, March 5, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 12.0° F  Fair
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Fortepiano master Malcolm Bilson finds the spaces between the notes
Old-time ivories
Bilson: 'Music is served differently with different pianos.'
Bilson: 'Music is served differently with different pianos.'

When pianist Malcolm Bilson plays the fortepiano in UW Mills Hall this Sunday, he will turn on that grand 18th-century charm. Bilson, emeritus professor of piano at Cornell University, will play his own fortepiano, one based on a circa 1790 Viennese model by Johann Schanz. The concert is free.

For modern pianists, Bilson's fortepiano would take some getting used to. Instead of foot pedals to sustain or soften sound, the fortepiano uses knee levers. It also has only five octaves compared to the usual seven. But the benefits are worth it.

"Earlier pianos are capable of fine inflections between the notes, while modern pianos give us longer, fuller, richer sounds," says Bilson. "Music is served differently with different pianos."

The music on Sunday's recital requires the fortepiano's detailed attention to the tiny space between one sound and the next. The program opens with Haydn's Sonata in E minor, Hob. 34, and Mozart's Sonata in F major, K. 332. Bilson points out that in the opening motif of the Mozart, the score indicates a slight separation in sound between the last beat of one bar and the first beat of the next.

"If you do this on a modern piano, it sounds like a hiccup," he says. "But on a fortepiano you get the sighing motif that Mozart intended."

Also on the program are Mozart's variations on "Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman," the melody we know as "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." The recital will end with two popular Beethoven sonatas, Opus 31, No. 2 in D minor and Opus 31, No. 3 in E-flat major. It will be enlightening to hear these on the fortepiano.

Bilson is a leading authority on 18th-century performance practice and will teach and lecture during his stay next week (see for his schedule).

Madison's Trevor Stephenson, keyboard artist, lecturer and director of the Madison Bach Musicians, studied with Bilson at Cornell in the 1980s.

"Malcolm plays with an amazing sense of flow and wit," he says. "He is a well-spoken proponent of the fortepiano, and I'm honored that he's coming to Madison. Malcolm is responsible for my conversion to a world in which the instrument you play matters in how close you can get to the music."

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