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Elaine Funaro and Beverly Biggs have been playing harpsichord duets for more than a decade. The music room of the Music House provided a handsome venue for a concert on two harpsichords. They were playing Funaro's 1970s French double by William Dowd and the Music House resident double by Richard Kingston. (Biggs's own French double by David Dutton was booked for a seasonal rehearsal the next morning in another town.) The two instruments were arranged in the standard duet form, bentside to bentside with the players facing each other. The Dowd with its lid open was in back with the Kingston, lidless, in front.
The two-harpsichord genre impresses me as being a player's ideal; the sum otherwise does not seem equal to the sum of the parts. There is, however, a fair amount of music for the combination, and this was a pleasant concert.
The players opened with a jolly – well, funny and silly – Allegro from J. C. Bach's Sonata in G for two harpsichords, W.A. 21. The players, in this as in everything in this concert, thoroughly exploited the multiply levels of terrace dynamics available on two double manual instruments. It was hard to distinguish between the two harpsichords; it was more effective to focus on the many fluctuations of the sound without worrying exactly who was doing what.
After this piece of attitude adjustment, with everybody basking in the cuteness, Funaro performed, solo, her third anthology of new harpsichord compositions from the Alienor competitions. These ten pieces of moderate length are typical of recent material received by the competition.
It is appropriate to observe that most old harpsichords were single-manual instruments and that most harpsichord music, both compositions and accompaniment, was played on single-manual instruments. Doubles existed, but they were the exception; there were compositions (such as J. S. Bach's Italian Concerto and Goldberg Variations) that explicitly called for two manuals; there were compositions that tacitly seemed to call for two manuals (some 18th century French compositions). But these are all exceptional. Much more typical pieces such as the two books of Das wohltemperierte Clavier, the suites of Handel, or the sonatas of Scarlatti have the kernel of their genius embedded in the choice of notes and not the necessity for two keyboards.
All this is a preface to saying there was more reliance on stop changing and keyboard changing in the Alienor pieces than might be expected in historical compositions, many of which are pieces of genius that only require one keyboard of four octaves, and frequently not even a harpsichord sound to be recognizable as genius.
Although the ten Alienor pieces were identified neither by title or composer (Funaro said, "You don't even need to count them; you'll know I'm through when I stop playing."), the ten pieces were well differentiated and thoroughly exploited the resources of the Dowd. A few notes in shorthand form will give the reader an idea: 1. French 2. Disjunct 3. Hand-crossing on top of each other, tight, close, intense 4. Buff versus 8+4 5. Melody lower keyboard, accompaniment upper 6. Drummer boy on buff contracted with melody on lower 7. Mellow jazz 8. Tight and organ-like 9. Repetitive 10. Olé!
The next piece was for two harpsichords again, W.F. Bach's Concerto a Due Cembali Concertati in F. There was a lovely Andante and a very effective Allegro moderato. In the Allegro, there occurred what occasionally happens in live music, where the performers are working without a net, so to speak. The audience got a brief peek at sausage being made, when somebody skipped a line, things went rapidly from bad to "wurst," and the music ground to a halt. The players started again, the piece advanced seamlessly, and the beauty of Friedemann Bach shown through.
After intermission, we heard the Sonata for Two Harpsichords No. 2 (2014), by Alienor winner and Carrboro resident Edwin McLean. The "Tempo di Tango" had strong French style and was very idiomatic to the harpsichord. The "Moderately" was smooth and the "Expressively" was expressive.
Joseph Haydn's Piano Concerto in D, No. 11 (Hob. XVIII/11) was written for piano and orchestra. The version performed tonight was a transcription for two harpsichords from Haydn's lifetime. The first movement, Vivace, was extremely musical, idiomatic, and believable. There was nothing about it to suggest that it was so far from its original instrumentation. The second, Un poco adagio, was smooth and singing. The third, Rondo all'Ungarese, so similar in style to Mozart's "Rondo alla turca," could have used a janissary stop and a more extreme interpretation, but was extremely pleasant and greatly enjoyed by the audience, who seemed to have found much pleasure in this entire concert.