The recital didn’t start with an introduction, or an announcement. The doors didn’t even close. The musicians began playing, and at the sound of Chaconne en trio in G Mahor, by Morel, the theatre snapped silent.
This past Friday, September 13th, I went to the first of the Fridays at Four series, featuring Janet See on traverso (an old type of flute), Steven Lehning on the Viola da Gamba (an old type of stringed instrument), and Jonathan Oddie on harpsichord (the precursor to the piano). They played in the gorgeous Kimball Theatre, located in Hunter Conservatory. The recital lasted for about one hour of stunning music mixed with the artists talking about the histories of the pieces they played, and, most importantly, their baroque style instruments. After the recital audience members were welcomed on stage to talk with the musicians and see, or in some special cases play, the instruments.
The pieces were unlike any other music I have heard. I love symphonies, and ballets, and operas, but other baroque pieces I have listened to weren’t played with traditional instruments. See, Lehning, and Oddie were all masters of instruments largely forgotten by music creators since the baroque era, so to hear baroque music played on baroque style instruments was like being transported back to a small concert hall in the mid-sixteen or seventeen hundreds. It was the music as Handel and Telemann would have heard it. Classical music can be boring, even sleep inducing (I know from experience), but this concert was beautiful and impressive more than those things. See and company did things I could scarcely dream of hearing, and they did it with instruments designed 400 years ago.
So what were these instruments I keep raving about? The traverso is an almost conical flute that can’t play as many notes as modern concert flutes. See’s traverso had a body carved from ebony, and a head made of a different wood. See played so much and so passionately that she had already broken two ebony traverso heads. The harpsichord was Italian, although the Italians usually had their harpsichords shipped from Denmark and then modified them in Italy. It was almost six feet long in all, with the stings exposed and glinting in the stage light. Last, and my personal favorite, was the Viola da Gamba, a cousin of the shoulder Viola, played like a cello, and unlike other orchestral string instruments it had frets on the fingerboard. In other words if a lute, viola, and cello had a kid. The best violons (violins, violas, cellos, and violas da gamba) were made in England during the baroque period, and violas da gamba had 4 strings with a similar layout to a shoulder viola. The French, much like the Italians preferred 7 string violas da gamba and so would modify them with a larger bridge and scroll after ordering the bodies from England. Lehning used a French style viola da gamba, made in 1997, with a carved scroll shaped like a female noble’s head. The group played five songs in total, two trios, two solos, and one duet. The songs were Chaconne en trio in G Major, by Morel, Suite No.1 in B-flat Major, HWV 434, by Handel, Suite No.1 in E minor, by Leclair, Suite in F Major, by Marais, and Sonata in C minor, TWV 42:c6, by Telemann. The harpsichord played the Handel solo, and it was incredible to watch. I didn’t think it was possible for a harpsichord to play that fast. The flute played solo on certain movements of the Leclair, backed up on others by the viola and harpsichord. The harpsichord backed up the viola da gamba on the Marais suite, and it sounded as if three people were playing instead of two. Truly these musicians are masters of their craft. The recital concluded with a lively and beautiful sonata by Telemann, where all three instruments had a chance to shine.
If you have a chance to go to the following recitals in the series, go. Don’t hesitate. If they are all like Weaving Wind and Strings you will not regret spending the hour there. I got the chance to play the viola da gamba, along with two other Whitman students! You usually don’t get the chance to speak with the musicians after a concert, let alone play their instruments. And if that wasn’t enough to make you clear your schedule at four on Fridays, know that any recital in the series would make a great date; they are free to attend, high quality, and the recitals end right before dinner time!