The Austin Chronicle

Bach's Herd of Harpsichords V: Double Play

Reviewed by Robert Faires, January 9, 2015, Arts

First Presbyterian Church, 8001 Mesa
Jan. 4

One may expect to see many things at a harpsichord concert, but I daresay one of those refined classical instruments being comandeered by a guy in a Batman sweatshirt and a knit stocking cap isn't one of them. And yet that's exactly what audiences were treated to in the latest edition of La Follia Austin Baroque's annual paean to the piano's plucky ancestor: a quite callow fellow in that unorthodox concert attire tickling the treble end of the keyboard while a gentleman wearing a scholar's cap with tassle worked the bass end.

The outfits, as it happened, were in service to a gag: a comic performance of Haydn's "Il Maestro e lo Scolare," with a no-nonsense Jeffrey Jones-Ragona playing Bud Abbott to the clueless Lou Costello of La Follia Director Keith Womer. Whatever Jones-Ragona's teacher played, Womer's goofy pupil had to repeat, which the two had lots of fun with, but they also interspersed between the musical variations little jokey exchanges. "Did you practice this week?" inquired the stone-faced Maestro. "Three hours," replied the student with enthusiasm. "That's a lot, right?" And upon hearing a few instrumentalists accompany his teacher, Womer's eyes grew wide, and he asked amazedly: "Strings?" At which Jones-Ragona glared Womer's way and, in his best Soup Nazi voice, bellowed, "No strings for you!" It was classical music vaudeville – all that was missing was a Baroque rimshot.

Such puckish behavior is nothing new for Womer, who likes to introduce the "herd of harpsichords" concerts in a cowboy hat and is known to pepper his remarks with a joke or three. But it's evidence of more than his sense of humor; it reflects his feelings toward this centuries-old music, that it was composed by living, breathing human beings and is living and breathing still. This music can be played with when it's played, and there's room in it for humor – and passion and tenderness and sorrow and all the other colors of the human experience. Case in point: the concert's presentation of Vivaldi's Concerto for Two Violins, Strings, and Continuo, which Jones-Ragona had arranged for two harpsichords. While that may strike some as treading on sacred ground, Jones-Ragona was just following the lead of J.S. Bach, who arranged several of Vivaldi's violin concertos for organ and other instruments. Jones-Ragona's arrangement opened up a familiar piece of music and made it sound fresh. As with the pairing of Astaire and Rogers ("he gave her class, she gave him sex"), the harpsichords gave Vivaldi's score some added elegance, while the flash and fire of the Vivaldi gave the sometimes effete-sounding keyboards some muscle and passion.

Indeed, the whole "herd" series – now a New Year's tradition for La Follia – has been great for giving listeners a new appreciation for the harpsichord. Five concerts in, I still find myself surprised by its versatility, how one minute it will be the poster instrument for airy frivolity and musical ornamentation – as with this program's Duetto for Two Harpsichords by Johann Christian Bach, a sunny gambol in the garden – then the next will display so much intensity and emotional complexity, as in the Concerto for three harpsichords and strings in C major by J.C. Bach's papa, one of those Bach compositions that seems so mathematically intricate in structure yet also seems to rise from some deep chamber in the heart. Womer, Jones-Ragona, and fellow keyboardist JiMin Kim teased out all the various hues of this underrated instrument, which may be these concerts' least surprising aspect. One always hears the harpsichord played with richness and sensitivity. You may not know what to expect from the series' sixth installment, but I promise you can count on that.

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