Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Bigger is(n't always) better: I toured with a harpsichord

The following is a discourse written by harpsichordist Gregory Hayes, who recently toured with the VSO playing Vivaldi's The Four Seasons as part of the 2008 Made in Vermont Music Festival statewide tour. Read on about his adventures hauling his harpsichord around the state.

In September of 1700 the Parisian harpsichord builder Jean Marius received a Royal Patent for his clavecin brisé, or folding harpsichord. Also known as a traveling harpsichord, this was a strange-looking contraption in three pieces that were hinged together and could be folded up to resemble a modest wooden box. (Think of a right-angle triangle with the hypotenuse approximating the bentside of a miniature harpsichord. The treble corner folds back on the rest to make a large rectangle, and then the rectangle folds over on itself along the long axis to make a narrower one that’s twice as deep.)

Apparently Frederick the Great owned one of these and took it with him on journeys and military campaigns. There are no contemporary accounts of how well it worked or what it sounded like. It had no descendants, and no one else tried to make one. There may be a reason for this. Harpsichords, after all, weren’t meant to travel. They were stationary instruments (especially the big two-manual ones) that resided in the salons and concert spaces of royal palaces and in the homes of wealthy burghers.

Jump now to the 21st century, when palaces are in short supply (especially in Vermont) but audiences enjoy hearing orchestral works by Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, and others. Those pieces almost invariably call for a keyboard that doubles the bass line and provides harmonic support by way of a shorthand system known as figured bass. In the baroque era that instrument was an organ (especially for sacred music) or harpsichord. In the early and mid-20th century a piano would suffice (and in some circumstances can still serve honorably), but nowadays more often than not you bring in a harpsichordist.

And, usually, a harpsichord. Mine is a double-manual instrument based on one built by the French maker Pascal Taskin in 1753. I put it together some 30 years ago from a Hubbard kit. Long ago I took my name off it because I had it rebuilt (twice) by professionals who tweaked it in mysterious ways to enhance its sound, mechanism, and stability. Among certain orchestra managers it is known as Big Red. It has a lot of sonic miles on it—probably about as many as my van (in excess of 208,000). Things go wrong now and then, and I carry with it a huge case stuffed with extra wire and odd tools, a few of them homemade. Here an obscure corollary of the Peter Principle seems to be in effect: as long as I lug the toolbag in with me, nothing will go awry.

But there’s always the matter of tuning. Orchestra conductors and players quite reasonably expect this interloper in their midst to play in tune. But harpsichords are fickle this way, much more so than their big, black, iron-framed successor, the piano. My very first orchestral engagement as a harpsichordist was with the Springfield (MA) Symphony, conducted on the occasion by a guest, the venerable Alexander Schneider. I dutifully moved the instrument in early and tuned it thoroughly. The piece in which I was playing came along well into the rehearsal. We began; things ground to a halt shortly and maestro Schneider glared at me. The harpsichord was noticeably—painfully—flat, and still sinking. I had not taken into account the intensely bright stage lighting in Symphony Hall, which had heated up and dried out the porous spruce of the harpsichord’s soundboard sufficiently to make the bridges descend a bit, thereby loosening the strings and causing the pitch to drop precipitously. I learned my lesson, just as I have when the humidity increases (from a rainstorm, or when the evening damps descend upon an outdoor venue) and things go in the opposite direction. One develops all sorts of ploys, taking into account the weather, the time of day (and year), the lighting, and the likelihood of the orchestral strings going up a bit in the course of the concert (though they will deny this). And you move it in early and tune it a lot--before the soundcheck, before the concert, and a touch--up at halftime. And hope for the best. From the harpsichord tuner’s perspective the up side of the VSO’s Made in Vermont tour is that it takes place in the fall, when the weather tends to be crisp and fairly stable, tending gradually in the directions of cooler and drier. There were, however, a few venues with very hot stage lighting. The Vergennes Opera House gets the toasted soundboard prize, with the Arkell Pavilion (Southern Vermont Arts Center, Manchester) coming in a close second.

Speaking of Opera Houses: these elegant edifices have been the most charming and intimate settings for our performances. These are also centrally located in their small towns. Bless the civic sensibility of Vermont citizens (especially a few wealthy ones) who, a century or more ago, deemed it important to devote prime urban real estate not to football, or hockey, or big box stores, but…to opera.

That said, a harpsichord mover in Vermont quickly learns to associate the name “opera house” with challenges best addressed with some ingenuity and a strong back. The Haskell Opera House, situated atop the Haskell Library and astride the U.S.-Canadian border in Derby Line, offers a uniquely entertaining circumstance: the orchestra sits onstage in Canada, playing to an audience largely situated in the United States. It also offers some tight corners and stage access for harpsichords only via a two-story staircase. Here, as in nine other venues, tour manager Craig Chipman’s assistance (with an occasional helping hand from Eleanor or Rebecca) was invaluable.

And what’s at the other end of all this fuss and bother? For me, a chance to play great music with an accomplished and congenial group of musicians (not to mention a world-class soloist) in beautiful surroundings, both indoors and out. Not only is it a fair trade: I come out ahead.

Gregory Hayes