JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
Conductor Carl Crosier, top, presides over rehearsals for this week's concerts. The harpsichord musicians, clockwise from top right, are Grant Mack, Evelyn Zuckerman, Mark Russell, and Evelyn Lance.
Four of Bach's concertos will be performed for the first time ever in Hawaii
"Absolutely insane!" is not the way one would typically describe a concert of Bach's music.
But that's how Carl Crosier, conductor of the Bach Chamber Orchestra, describes this weekend's concert at the Lutheran Church of Honolulu.
Bach Harpsichord and Violin Concertos and Vivaldi Violin Concerto
Performed by the Bach Chamber Orchestra and guests: harpsichordists Carl Crosier, Grant Mack, Evelyn Zuckerman, Evelyn Lance and Mark Russell
Place: Lutheran Church of Honolulu, 1730 Punahou St.
Time: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Tickets: $30 limited preferred seating, $25 general admission, and $15 students (reservations strongly recommended)
The concert will feature, for the first time in Hawaii, four of Bach's harpsichord concertos: one each for solo, duo, triple and quadruple harpsichords. The accumulation of so many of the keyboard instruments, which date back to 17th- and 18th-century Europe, was no mean feat.
"It was difficult to find not only four instruments that are reasonably compatible with each other, but also harpsichordists who can play all this stuff," he said.
The harpsichord is the precursor to the modern piano and was the main keyboard instrument of Bach's time. (While Bach is the most famous composer to write for the instrument, the most famous performer -- to the chagrin of other harpsichordists -- is probably Lurch, the butler on "The Addams Family" of 1960s TV fame.)
A harpsichord produces sound by a mechanism that plucks the strings, rather than hammering them as a piano does. Its sound is softer than a piano's, but it has unique timbre that is in a way more resonant and more colorful.
Instruments built in the various regions of Europe had their own distinctive qualities designed to fit the style of the local composers, creating a compatibility problem, but what makes the harpsichords particularly notorious in performance is keeping them in tune. As an all-wood instrument, they are sensitive to heat and humidity, much as a guitar is -- except that a harpsichord has dozens of strings.
"We're going to have the audience go outside during intermission so that we can tune the instruments," Crosier said.
Crosier had to send out recordings to each harpsichordist to give them an idea of how he thinks the pieces should be performed, but the details couldn't be worked out until this week, when the performers worked together for the first time on Monday.
Bach would have been at the height of his fame while producing these concertos, which were composed roughly between 1730 and 1740. He was already musical director of the two main churches in Leipzig, Germany, when he was appointed director of a student orchestra that performed at a local coffeehouse. (Those who think that listening to music while drinking a brew at Starbucks is a modern invention, think again.)
The concerts provided Bach ample incentive and opportunity to produce new chamber works. His efforts resulted in energetic, virtuosic pieces that display his trademark complexity and inventiveness. Albert Schweitzer, who prior to becoming a medical missionary in Africa was a noted Bach scholar and performer, said of the triple harpsichord concertos, "At every hearing of these works we stand amazed before the mystery of so incredible a power of invention and combination."
Bach scholar Christoph Wolff wrote that the works "set new standards for the dynamic interplay between keyboard soloist and instrumental ensemble -- indeed (Bach) established a new genre that his sons consolidated and that by the end of the century had become the most favored concerto type so far."
Local piano teacher Mark Russell, who will perform in the quadruple harpsichord work, called it "quite difficult."
"The harpsichords all play off each other," he said. "Each has its own part, but they come in at odd moments. ... There are lots of interesting themes and configurations that we'll need to work out."
Russell's contribution to the concert will be not only as a performer. He built one of the instruments that will be used in the performance, from a kit. The elaborately decorated instrument took nine months to build.
"I studied the manual, and restudied it and restudied it again," Russell said. "It's not like the pieces fit together perfectly, there was a lot of woodworking and figuring things out. ... It's like you're actually building the instrument like a 17th-century craftsman, except you're using power tools."