Three of the Gospels relate the danger of putting newly pressed fruit of the vine into old wineskins. And then there's the proverb about old dogs and those new tricks. For over 30 years, harpsichordist Elaine Funaro has been saying "balderdash" (well, maybe not exactly that) to those notions, at least insofar as modern music for old keyboard instruments is concerned. The Aliénor Harpsichord Composition Competition, now under the auspices of the Historical Keyboard Society, has been her vehicle for eliciting new scores, and to date over 600 of them have been produced by composers from all over. Of course, Funaro's not the only harpsichord enthusiast who spends time and resources in pursuit of new music for old instruments.* No, not the only one. Just the most indefatigable.
At Duke, on the East Campus, in the venerable Nelson Music Room, on a cold, wet evening, Funaro mustered a substantial crowd of listeners to hear a consort of old-music musicians (which is not to imply the players themselves are old). The roster included Geoffrey Burgess, who literally wrote the book on the oboe (or at least a book) and who has performed all over the world, including previous gigs here in the Triangle; John Pruett, the versatile violinist and violist, who played violin on this occasion; cellist Andrew Anagnost; Funaro herself; and soprano Penelope Jensen, who is one of the Triangle's great vocal treasures. Funaro played in every selection, for this was basically her show. The others participated here and there, as needed.
They played new stuff on this concert, a concert that was part of the NC HIP Festival lineup, coordinated by the Mallarmé Chamber Players' Artistic Director, Suzanne Rousso. There were several world premieres. And note this wasn't the first new music on this old-music extravaganza. A new work by Duke's Stephen Jaffe was premiered two days previously, and, as a member of the audience for this Aliénor program, he was still bubbling with pleasure as he recounted that earlier one.
There was new music for old instruments by three composers with direct academic ties to Duke plus Aliénor (all of whom were present and spoke) – John Mayrose (b.1975), Carl Schimmel (b.1975), and Jeremy Beck (b.1960) – and by four others – Gavin Wayte (b.1975), Rudy Davenport (b.1948), Ivan Božičević (b.1961), and Chris Lastovika (b.1973).
The music ran the gamut. Some pieces paid homage of one sort or another to the past – for example, Mayrose's three-part Period Piece (oboe, violin, cello, and harpsichord), in which some of the tributes were somewhat hard to grasp at first hearing; and two works by Božičević, which hewed (somewhat loosely) to the traditional ABA form of some Baroque arias. Others were, perhaps intentionally, more difficult to tie to the past – Mayrose's "Cascada" (solo harpsichord), Schimmel's "Monogramarye" (oboe and harpsichord), and Wayte's over-the-top "Hot to Trot Love Bot" (solo harpsichord; a piece that enticed Funaro into a costume and required her to carry on in Sprechstimme – and from which some short clips may be heard here).
The concluding pieces – "Tracing" (for everyone but the singer) and "Aliénor Courante" (for everyone) – by Božičević, a Croatian, stood out for the emotional wallop that, in various ways, they packed; and Lastovika's "Láska" (Czech for "love") served as a perfect cap to the evening, its long, flowing melodies radiantly conveyed by Burgess and Funaro.
But for this listener, the concert's jewels were two sets of songs: by Beck (Songs of Love and Remembrance, to texts by Thomas Moore, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and William Butler Yeats); and five more, adapted from the Song of Songs, set by Davenport as Songs of the Bride (which cast these well-known verses from the woman's perspective). These were sung with exceptional skill and vocal radiance by Jensen, accompanied in the first instance by Pruett and Funaro and, in the second, by Burgess and Funaro. The composers, each in his own way, got into the skins of the poets, and the music exuded, variously, charm, dignity, respect, grace, and reverence. Here's hoping we will have a chance to hear these items again, perhaps on a compilation CD drawn from the concert (although a "live" repeat would be better still).
The program may have contained one number too many – concerts like this make demands on the audiences that in ways parallel the requirements imposed on the musicians – but I'd be hard pressed to pick anything to have jettisoned.
In closing, it may be worth noting that it was in a sense a family affair for Funaro, whose son Eric prepared the elegant goodies served at the post-concert reception and whose other half, pianist Randall Love, was the bearer of the bouquets given to the harpsichordist and the soprano. Methinks the rest of the players deserved at least a rose apiece.
There's still time for YOU to be a HIPster, too. Click here for information on the remaining events (through Feb. 7).
PS Mention of Courante in the penultimate group brings to mind Ensemble Courant, UNC's baroque ensemble, and reminds one that two of its founding members – Funaro and Jensen – participated in this program. Wow!
*One of my oldest musical memories centers on Manuel de Falla's Harpsichord Concerto as heard on an old Mercury Lp (remember those things?); the music was already about 25 years old at the time of that first recording.