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Fortepiano Pioneer

Portrett av Bart van Oort som sitter ved klaveret.

Bart van Oort, the newly appointed Associate Professor of Fortepiano at NMH, does not mince words: Early music is about so much more than playing old instruments.

It's been almost half a year since the Norwegian Academy of Music recruited the fortepiano guru Bart van Oort to its faculty. Rumour has it that he's very well-established in early music

Van Oort, from the Netherlands, specialises in historical performance practice and wastes no time – after a brief introduction, he launches into an engaged monologue on interpretation. Compared to the modern piano, playing a classical piece on the fortepiano is about much more than just the sound:

"Often, we try to interpret what is written in the notes as best we can, but then we don't consider that the instruments of the classical and early romantic periods were different from today's," he says.

Knowledge-based performance

Composers expected something different from the instruments they wrote for than what our instruments do now, he explains, using Beethoven as an example.

"If we look at notation as instructions, what comes out of the instrument is not in line with the period's style."

He points out the limitations of notation as a language and instead encourages us to look at them as descriptions of how the composers envisioned the sound of the music.

He admits some of this may be subjective but still insists that 80% can be confirmed and proven through letters and other sources from the period.

But most of it is found in the instrument itself. The fortepiano has more possibilities to colour and articulate, and the performance depends on how the performer uses the instrument to speak, he says.

"This music is rhetorical, so I use the word 'speak.' On the other hand, the modern piano is an instrument that can sing, but in early music, it's more about consonants than singing."

At NMH, Van Oort doesn't work exclusively with pianists but with musicians on several different instruments. He doesn't want to tell his students what's right or wrong but rather create awareness of what's possible and, most importantly, how to translate the music into a modern language in a good way. It's no longer enough to be able to play a brilliant solo concert – you also have to know what you're doing on a deeper level, he says.

Baart van Oort spiller hammerklaver i Levinsalen og løfter hendene for å ta en akkord. Bladlus og cellist sitter ved siden av ham.
Bart van Oort playing at a concert during the NMH Chamber Music Week in 2018.

The music’s native language

Mozart's instrument is what Van Oort calls the mother tongue of his music. If you want to know what the composer meant, you need the instrument as a tool to speak his native language, in addition to insight into the field.

"There's nothing wrong with playing Mozart and Beethoven on a Steinway, but you need to know that when you do, you're translating the work into something modern," he says, comparing it to performing Shakespeare in modern English or in Norwegian. It will be more understandable than in the original version, but you can quickly lose something in the process – rhythm, colour, references to events and phenomena from when the work was written.

"That's why it's important to be informed. The doing is based on the performer's knowing."

New life

The year was 1991 when Bart van Oort first visited the Academy to teach. He says he was already impressed by the open atmosphere, which he still experiences today.

"Anyone can do anything here, and there are always people there who want to listen, in masterclasses, for example. I've been to conservatories all over the world, and I can only think of three or four places where it's like that."

Performance depends on adaptation, flexibility, and capacity, not really the instrument itself. It's a good exercise for everyone, and I think it also enriches the performance of newer music.

Bart van Oort Pianist and Associate Professor at NMH

"The interest among the students is enormous," he says happily, adding that he has wanted to work at NMH for a long time.

Like many fortepiano players, Van Oort himself started with a modern piano. He estimates that about half of them do the same, while the rest come from the harpsichord and the organ.

What made you start playing the fortepiano?

"I loved Mozart and Haydn, but I didn't feel like I was getting it right. But on the early instruments, it all fell into place."

The path wasn't so long as a student at the conservatory in The Hague, with its own early music department, where Van Oort also works today.

"My favourite repertoire suddenly came to life."

Instruments in need of care

Lina Braaten is the head of department for piano, accompaniment, guitar, and accordion. She describes the hiring of Van Oort as a great boost for the Norwegian Academy of Music in the field of early music and a fantastic addition to the classical education in general.

Even though historical performance is the focus, according to Braaten, Van Oort's position will benefit the entire school, in the form of chamber music, lectures, forum teaching, and more.

"With Bart an instructor of the fortepiano, our piano students will have an even better study programme," she says.

We have many good historical instruments in-house that need to be played and cared for. With Bart in place, they are in the best hands, literally!

Lina Braaten Head of the Piano, Accompaniment, Guitar and Accordion Department
Portrett av Lina Braaten ved flygelet.

Braaten believes that the field is fundamental and that it is important to be familiar with – and feel – the fortepiano's technical possibilities."

It is the foundation of all the music we play," Braaten emphasizes. "We also have many good historical instruments in-house that need to be played and cared for. With Bart in place, they are in the best hands, literally!"

Never enough Mozart

Pianists who are not used to the fortepiano often experience the instrument as limiting. But what is lost can be replaced with new opportunities, according to Van Oort.

"Performance depends on adaptation, flexibility, and capacity, not really the instrument itself. It's a good exercise for everyone, and I think it also enriches the performance of newer music."

Van Oort himself has got an unusually rich production out of his specialisation. As we speak, he's not quite sure exactly how many albums he's recorded, but he thinks it's around 85.

"At one point, I recorded 17 CDs in one year."

In the 2000s, he made a complete recording of Mozart's solo pieces for piano.

"I worked so hard on them at first, but in the end, I hardly needed to practice anymore. Everything was so logical."

He describes a feeling of a total overview, and calls it a spiderweb, where everything is interconnected, and the source is a genius so great that we cannot even understand it.

Have you not gotten tired of music from the classical era?

"Never!" he declares. "My admiration for Mozart has only grown bigger."