Last Sunday, I was privileged to be a guest in the home of Mark Russell, owner and builder of what my late husband used to call “the finest harpsichord in Honolulu.” It was a chance to show off the instrument to Jieun and Ben Newland, newcomers to Hawaii. You may remember that she was the harpsichordist who played in last weekend’s Purcell concert, and that I wrote a post about her called “A new organist in town!”
In addition to hearing Jieun and Mark play a little “home concert,” we reminisced about the four harpsichord concert that was held at the Lutheran Church of Honolulu—one of the craziest and most insane ideas Carl Crosier ever dreamed up! Even Carl called it “Absolutely insane!”
You can read Steven Mark’s excellent article in the October 26, 2007 Star-Bulletin here.
Four of Bach’s concertos will be performed for the first time ever in Hawaii
“Absolutely insane!” is not the way one would typically describe a concert of Bach’s music.
But that’s how Carl Crosier, conductor of the Bach Chamber Orchestra, describes this weekend’s concert at the Lutheran Church of Honolulu
The concert will feature, for the first time in Hawaii, four of Bach’s harpsichord concertos: one each for solo, duo, triple and quadruple harpsichords. The accumulation of so many of the keyboard instruments, which date back to 17th- and 18th-century Europe, was no mean feat.
“It was difficult to find not only four instruments that are reasonably compatible with each other, but also harpsichordists who can play all this stuff,” he said.
The harpsichord is the precursor to the modern piano and was the main keyboard instrument of Bach’s time. (While Bach is the most famous composer to write for the instrument, the most famous performer — to the chagrin of other harpsichordists — is probably Lurch, the butler on “The Addams Family” of 1960s TV fame.)
A harpsichord produces sound by a mechanism that plucks the strings, rather than hammering them as a piano does. Its sound is softer than a piano’s, but it has unique timbre that is in a way more resonant and more colorful.
Instruments built in the various regions of Europe had their own distinctive qualities designed to fit the style of the local composers, creating a compatibility problem, but what makes the harpsichords particularly notorious in performance is keeping them in tune. As an all-wood instrument, they are sensitive to heat and humidity, much as a guitar is — except that a harpsichord has dozens of strings.
“We’re going to have the audience go outside during intermission so that we can tune the instruments,” Crosier said.
Crosier had to send out recordings to each harpsichordist to give them an idea of how he thinks the pieces should be performed, but the details couldn’t be worked out until this week, when the performers worked together for the first time on Monday.
Bach would have been at the height of his fame while producing these concertos, which were composed roughly between 1730 and 1740. He was already musical director of the two main churches in Leipzig, Germany, when he was appointed director of a student orchestra that performed at a local coffeehouse. (Those who think that listening to music while drinking a brew at Starbucks is a modern invention, think again.)
The concerts provided Bach ample incentive and opportunity to produce new chamber works. His efforts resulted in energetic, virtuosic pieces that display his trademark complexity and inventiveness. Albert Schweitzer, who prior to becoming a medical missionary in Africa was a noted Bach scholar and performer, said of the triple harpsichord concertos, “At every hearing of these works we stand amazed before the mystery of so incredible a power of invention and combination.”
Bach scholar Christoph Wolff wrote that the works “set new standards for the dynamic interplay between keyboard soloist and instrumental ensemble — indeed (Bach) established a new genre that his sons consolidated and that by the end of the century had become the most favored concerto type so far.”
Local piano teacher Mark Russell, who will perform in the quadruple harpsichord work, called it “quite difficult.”
“The harpsichords all play off each other,” he said. “Each has its own part, but they come in at odd moments. … There are lots of interesting themes and configurations that we’ll need to work out.”
Russell’s contribution to the concert will be not only as a performer. He built one of the instruments that will be used in the performance, from a kit. The elaborately decorated instrument took nine months to build.
“I studied the manual, and restudied it and restudied it again,” Russell said. “It’s not like the pieces fit together perfectly, there was a lot of woodworking and figuring things out. … It’s like you’re actually building the instrument like a 17th-century craftsman, except you’re using power tools.”
The two concerts were wildly successful, with the line to get in the door of the Lutheran Church of Honolulu going out to the sidewalk. What I remember, though, was that the concerts took place in the days before the church got cool LED lighting, and with the hot spotlights on the harpsichords, they were sooooo out of tune, especially on the Friday night concert!
By the next night, we had the brilliant idea to leave the lights off over the harpsichords, and the tuning was better, even though the performers were partly in the dark.
But Carl also did it to himself, in that he programmed himself to play in five of the six concertos, and conducted the sixth! During intermission, he and Mark Russell sent everyone outside so they could attempt to bring four harpsichords into tune with one another. So—Carl never got a break the entire night! But he did it to himself!
Here are some of the pictures I took at the time. Sorry they are kind of fuzzy, but we didn’t have such good cameras back then.