functioning on stage: the performer versus the instrument

…in this post: mostly the instrument, actually.

So, here a reviewer writes: “If my perceptions were correct, the instrument behaved a little uncooperatively, with a couple of hanging jacks, and I wasn’t certain how much time the performer had found to spend with the instrument before the concert.” This triggers a large palette of emotional and rational responses. The fun part is that no more than one hanging plectrum will add sufficient spice to an interpretation to keep everyone’s mind busy through the next three to four pieces. I think I recall that on that particular occasion one plectrum in the lower manual stopped repeating, so I quickly switched to the upper manual and, after the first piece, stopped, opened the jackrail, took out the jack with the the offending plectrum and greased up its lower edge while keeping the audience busy with some cheerful comment.

The situation becomes somewhat more complicated when the instrument as a whole is in need of regulation, or has some fundamental drawbacks. Dare I talk about this? It would be too easy to assume that I am requesting the instrument not only to function perfectly but, as a whole, also to be excellent. To be sure, I am not addressing that level of sophistication at all. I am not spectacularly picky about the harpsichords for my performances (of course: better is always better…) unless they frustrate my longing for a basically secure technical ‘feel’. Picky or not: anecdotes abound.

A renowned harpsichordist was forced to interrupt a recital in Amsterdam several times, in order to coax one of the tuning pins in the bass of the harpsichord back into holding the string load. Between one Scarlatti and the next, the audience was treated to a series of intermezzi with frantic sonorous hammering. Each time, the music desk had to be removed and put back. Because it was held in place with packing tape, there were also periods of unsticking creaks (picked up and reinforced by some of the strings), and some terse re-sticking efforts. The whole presentation was, in fact, highly entertaining, and it duly reduced the traditional distance between artist and listener. The problem for my tidy mind is, nevertheless, that performances like this create the impression for the general public that the harpsichord is technically prehistoric and unreliable by default. This is, or ought to be, nonsense.

However: I once had an engagement with a bunch of modern Bassoon players for a mixed programme with a few baroque pieces, including a solo piece for me. As I repeatedly was assured, there was a harpsichord available and everything was perfectly planned and sought out. Well arriving at the concert location I found out that there was indeed a harpsichord: its pitch was stuck somewhat below 415 Hz, and would sink back whenever I tried tuning up ever so slightly (the performance was planned on 442 Hz. Even if I had transposed my parts, I would not have solved the problem). None of the tones repeated properly and some weren’t playing at all. No matter, says our host, we have a doctor here in the community who owns another harpsichord. That proved to be a revival instrument by one of the large brands. At one point it had been re-voiced by cutting off the original leather plectra, making mortises in the soft leather squares that remained in the tongues of the jacks and fitting new delrin plectra. Unfortunately the person doing this operation had been quite enthusiastic in making the mortises: my first scale released a shower of loose delrin plectra cascading across the soundboard. I ended up pushing them firmly back in place one by one and revoicing the whole register (while everyone else rehearsed). Even then, no trill would work and every quick movement would strew new plectra about. I played my continuo allright but the host of the concert never quite understood why I declined to play my solo (the only time I ever have done this).

So why did I not even try to play my solo? Because the audience comes to listen to music. It is not served by a performer who is fighting with the elements: fighting for whichever reason. No situation should arise where the artist is tempted to excuse her/himself because something in the instrument was really wrong (The best explanation I have heard was: “the keyboard of this particular harpsichord is rather narrow and my fingers are rather wide, so be prepared for a few mistakes”). In such a case it is simply better to adjust the programme or to cancel the concert.

Returning to the beginning, there is nothing much wrong with a harpsichord that occasionally refuses full cooperation, if it normally is well behaved. There are 183 plectra in a five-octave French Double – three more in an instrument with a transposing keyboard. Something can happen during a concert. If the player goes about solving the problem elegantly and if his comments are entertaining and informative, this only will please the audience.

The instrument mentioned in the review above is the gorgeous 1785 harpsichord by Jacques Germain in the collection of the National Music Museum, Vermillion, South Dakota, one of the best functioning historical harpsichords I know. This instrument has been beautifully voiced in bird plectra (crow, I believe) by John Koster and it was entirely my fault that I hadn’t found the hanger before beginning the concert.

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One Response to “functioning on stage: the performer versus the instrument”

  1. drake Says:

    I have never made myself more unwelcome than the two times I followed your suggestion {“In such a case it is simply better to adjust the programme or to cancel the concert”}. But this is still the way to go, IMHO.

    The first time, I had accepted an engagement to play an organ at some 6 hours’ driving distance from where I lived, a fairly new instrument by Walcker which had been enthusiastically inaugurated by Heinz Wunderlich, former organist of the Jacobikirche in HHamburg, some years before. The concert was to be on Sunday afternoon, & I drove over on Friday afternoon & evening, through the thickest fog I have ever had to drive in: I could scarcely tell whether there was a center line on the road or not.

    I was warmly welcomed on arrival & treated to an excellent meal before retiring, exhausted from the drive but feeling some positive excitement about the next day’s practicing. The next day, however, was a grueling nightmare. The organ worked OK, on its own {electrical} terms; but it simply sounded awful. I had been prepared for the fact that the pipes were 30′ away from the keyboards, but nobody had told me that everything was so abominably voiced – in other words, not voiced at all – that any scale on a single register sounded like Klangfarbenmelodie. Not one register blended with any other, or even with itself. I battled with the instrument the whole day, then gave up. There was no way I could have made music on that instrument, so I tried as politely as possible to tell my hosts that that was the case, then fled town – unescorted, fortunately.

    The second time, I had been asked to play a small organ by Schnitger that had been restored not too many years before, with half the program on my harpsichord. Weeks before the concert I had observed some sticking keys and asked to have them repaired: since it’s a 1-manual organ, I couldn’t avoid those keys by choosing alternative registrations. The organ comittee member was cordial and did his best. In fact, the builder who’d restored the instrument was at hand, & came over to take a look a couple of days before the concert. But he was unable to find the sticky keys, apparently, & I think even a bit miffed that somebody could even conceive the possibility of mechanical problems in one of “his” instruments. So the situation was unchanged the day before the concert, and I decided I’d have to play it all on the harpsichord. A very nerve-racking 24 hours, of course. I felt sorry for one member of the audience who’d bicycled some considerable distance to hear the organ; after the program, somebody else volunteered to demonstrate it briefly for him, and I was rather pleased that the keys stuck for him as they had for me.

    The fact that “the audience comes to listen to music. It is not served by a performer who is fighting with the elements: fighting for whichever reason” seems too often to be lost on concert organizers. What do they think they’re doing?

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