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Although Aliénor is a North Carolina institution of long standing, this concert was my first opportunity to hear a performance by the group, which brings modern repertoire to the harpsichord through a regular composition competition. This program combined two and a half concerted works by Bach (the first movement of the Concerto in D minor for harpsichord, S.1052, plus the Concerto in D minor for three harpsichords, S.1063, and the Concerto in C minor for two harpsichords, S.1060), with two works for multiple harpsichords, unaccompanied – the Sonata for Two Harpsichords (1992) and the Sonata for Three Harpsichords (1998) by Carolinian composer Edwin McLean of Chapel Hill.
Harpsichordists Beverly Biggs, Elaine Funaro, and Rebecca Pechefsky (the latter visiting from New York City) were joined by a period string ensemble of Belinda Swanson and John Pruett, violins, Joey O'Donnell, viola, Brian Howard, cello, and Robbie Link, bass. Particularly notable was the unveiling and premiere of the Op. 333 harpsichord of maker Richard Kingston of Mooresboro, NC, decorated with a modern case painting by artist Lisa Creed (also of North Carolina), resting on a modern cradle by Douglas Carlisle.
The famous Concerto, S.1052, was taken at a moderate clip, losing a bit of the demonic character that I associate with the work and the key, particularly in the descending arpeggios heading toward the abyss of the ritornello. The seating of the strings in front of the solo instrument, rather than about or around it, meant that the solo voice was somewhat overbalanced, except where the strings took especial care to play quietly.
Next came the Sonata for Two Harpsichords by McLean, in three movements (interpreted by Funaro and Pechefsky). The first movement is a "Passacaglia a la Tango" (the references here being the baroque improvisation pattern in eight bars and the modern tango of Piazzolla), with effective writing in octaves. The following movement, "Moderately," was a polite conversation between the two players, in a slow four, the movement a little stiff, needing a little more swing. The concluding "Moderately Fast" began delicately and moved to a sort of folkish tambourin. McLean's vocabulary is quite tonal and draws on popular music, a contemporary music that will have no one frowning in dismay or putting their fingers in their ears.
The Concerto, S.1063, for three harpsichordists and strings, began very well, with the three instruments together making a big noise, and with a very tight ensemble. I thought the ensuing "Siciliana" might have been considerably slower, allowing more emphasis on the stresses of the meter. As it was, the movement was too fast to really sing, and the inflections of the solos were too square, not free enough. The concluding "Fugato," with rills of 32nds from the soloists, was effective.
After intermission, the Concerto, S.1060 (Biggs, Funaro), could boast a lovely "Adagio," pizzicato in the strings, with a nice rolling motion, and with admirable flexibility in the phrasing.
The program concluded with McLean's three-harpsichord Sonata. Here the references from popular music were even more clear than in the previous Sonata, and the lack of familiarity with this genre was evident in the interpretation. Pop, whatever its assets and liabilities, needs to live within a steady pulse, a groove, and the inflections, syncopations, deviations, take place only in the context of that steady beat. Keeping that beat, that groove, that swing is not as easy as it seems, and is not something inculcated in classically trained musicians. McLean's music would have been more effective with a steadier pulse and more swing. The third movement, "Bright, rhythmic," was a little closer to the mark, and the composer's harmonies a little more adventurous. The work closed with a quick march and moments in which the composer exploited the separation of the three instruments on stage.