“Experiencing Sounds We’ve Never Heard Before” with Glass Musician Dean Shostak

I’ve been wanting to hear Dean Shostak’s Crystal Concert at Colonial Williamsburg since Classical 101’s Boyce Lancaster blogged about it several years ago.  Experiencing this unique program at the Kimball Theatre last Wednesday was definitely worth the wait.

Shostak has performed music at Colonial Williamsburg since he was 14. He began as a violinist playing in the Music Teacher’s Shop, and then performed in evening concerts throughout the Historic Area. During college, Shostak started playing 18th century instruments like the pocket violin and the hurdy-gurdy. In 1991, he developed an interest in playing the glass armonica, which was invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1761. Today, Shostak is one of only eight glass armonica players in the world.

Shostak started the program by playing familiar Irish tunes like “Danny Boy” on the glass armonica. Then, he described how a German physician named Franz Mesmer used the glass armonica as part of his practice of “mesmerizing” patients to restore their health. Before he performed Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Adagio for Glass Armonica,” Shostak told about how Mesmer introduced Mozart to the glass armonica and inspired him to write a piece specifically for the instrument.

The glass armonica was a popular instrument during Colonial days. Shostak shared that Peter Pelham, Bruton Parish Church’s organist, played the glass armonica in concerts at Williamsburg’s Raleigh Tavern in 1765. By 1830, the glass armonica had fallen out of favor, because of concern that the lead content in the glass was causing illness. In the 1980s, interest in the glass armonica returned, due to Gerhard Finkenbeiner’s development of lead-free glass armonicas. Intrigued with the instrument, Shostak asked Finkenbeiner to make one for him.

Satisfying our curiosity about how the glass armonica works, Shostak explained that glass tubes are blown and sealed on one end; the other end is ground away at the rim to raise the pitch. A glass torch blows away any impurities. A hole in the bottom of a series of glass cups allows the cups to be attached to a spindle, which is turned by a flywheel and a foot treadle. Notes represented by traditional white keys on a piano are clear glass; sharps and flats are gold-colored glass. Each glass bowl is very carefully tuned, resulting in a cost of $600 per musical note. Smaller glass bowls have a higher pitch, so the flywheel has to be spun faster to play them, Shostak explained.

After playing “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” on the glass armonica, Shostak turned to a set of crystal handbells that he had commissioned. As he played “Holy, Holy, Holy” and “The Star of the County Down,” we could hear the pure tone at which the bells ring. “By playing these crystal handbells, we’re experiencing different sounds that we’ve never heard before,” Shostak observed.

Then, Shostak pulled out his glass violin that he had made in Tokyo, Japan. As he played “The Sparkling Violin,” one of his own compositions, we admired this three-and-a-half pound violin with sides that are engraved like a Stradivarius.

Shostak’s interest in glass instruments also extends to the cristal baschet, a futuristic-looking new way of playing music. The creation of François and Bernard Baschet, two brothers and “sound sculptors” from France, this instrument produces sound from oscillating glass cylinders. Playing his interpretation of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” Shostak moistened his fingers and rubbed a keyboard of 54 chromatically tuned glass rods to produce vibrations. He explained that the vibration of the glass rods is passed to a heavy block of metal through steel rods of different lengths, which determine the sound of the note that is produced. Fiberglass fixed in a wood frame and flame-shaped metal parts amplify the sound, he continued.

While Shostak’s concert featured creativity and innovation, we also attended a more traditional concert that day, which reminded us how special it is to hear live musical performances at Colonial Williamsburg. At the Mary Stith House, we joined about 30 other attendees to listen to “Music Then & Now,” a 25-minute concert that demonstrated how musicians bring 18th century music to life using period and reproduction instruments and facsimile scores. Performing on a harpsichord, a violin, a flute and a viola de gamba, the quartet began with a trio sonata by German composer Carl Friedrich Abel. Then, they continued with a selection from “Thomas and Sally,” a short, two-act opera composed by Thomas Arne in 1760. After the harpsichordist and flutist performed Johann Christian Bach’s Pastorale in A Major, the group concluded with some 18th century dance music, including “Chelmsford Assembly” and “Allemagne Cotillion.”

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