Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal



the untrained ear

uh oh . . . is that a harpsichord?

March 24, 2013

uh oh . . . is that a harpsichord?

There are some things you’ll just never hear me say. “I wish this piece had more harpsichord” is one of them. “Nothing cheers me up than a jaunty little harpsichord ditty” is another. If you’re waiting for me to express my love for a harpsichord, you better bring a book, because it’s going to be a loooong wait. I just don’t care for the harpsichord. It’s not my cup of tea. I have respect for it, and the musicians that play it, and its place within the orchestral music world, but if I were never to hear a harpsichord again, I’d be fine. So I was a little crestfallen when I entered the Alex on Saturday night for LACO’s Mostly Baroque concert and saw, in the corner of the stage, a turquoise harpsichord. Great. I settled into my seat for what I thought would be an awful, boring concert. And, once again, I was wrong! LACO kept me on my toes, and had a couple surprises up their sleeve.

The biggest surprise was when the harpsichord was summoned into action. The program notes indicated that the Brandenburg Concerto would feature the harpsichord, and Handel’s Water Music selections would not, but the reverse ended up happening, and both pieces benefited. In addition to not being a fan of the harpsichord, I’m also not a fan of the Brandenburg Concertos – my least favorite LACO concert of all was when they played all six in one evening – but hearing the Concerto tonight, with Jeffrey Kahane on the piano instead of the harpsichord, was actually a lovely experience.

I also certainly wasn’t expecting to recognize one of the Water Music movements. I have no idea where I’d heard it before (probably in a commercial or television show), but I have, and it’s always a joy to see a familiar piece of music come to life right in front of you. Luckily, the presence of the harpsichord didn’t diminish that joy. In fact, I found that if I focused on the other musicians on stage, I was able to tune the harpsichord out nearly completely. I’ll have to remember that trick for next time.

I don’t ever seem to leave a LACO concert without having a few questions. I’ve been known to accost a LACO staffer (or two) in the lobby after the performance, and grill them for a while. After this concert, I had a list of questions, and ended up taking three staffers hostage (a new record?) for probably 15 minutes. I had questions about the new CD that LACO was releasing (Lorraine available at Yarlung Records), questions about the piano and harpsichord switcheroo mentioned above, and all three of them tried to explain what ‘continuo’ means in reference to instrumentation – a definition that I fear I’ll just never understand. You think I’d be all out of queries, but as I drove home, two more dawned on me. So how about I ask them here?

The first question is this: Why were a majority of the musicians standing while they performed Stravinsky’s “Dumbarton Oaks”? For the other three pieces, they were comfortably sitting, but not for the Stravinsky. Does sitting versus standing affect how the music is played? Is it a style choice, or a practical one? “Dumbarton Oaks” was my favorite piece of the evening, by the way, probably because it wasn’t from the Baroque period at all. Had “Dumbarton Oaks” not been on the program, the concert wouldn’t need to be called “Mostly Baroque.” It could’ve been called “Baroque.”

The first piece of the evening was a Mozart Serenade, and it was really long. 45 minutes. I liked it because it brought the wind section front and center. In fact, apart from a single double bass, there were no strings involved at all! I enjoyed being able to see the clarinets and oboes and bassoons, all of which are normally tucked behind the string section, and I observed a very peculiar behavior that I’ve never seen before, and that brings me to my second question: Exactly how much spit in generated by a clarinetist during 45 minutes of playing? The reason I ask is that I watched, time and time again, as many of the musicians unscrewed their instruments during the performance and pass a handy-dandy little weighted rag through them, presumably to clean out the spit. The cleaning process was quick – it almost looked like a sleight-of-hand magic trick – but those clarinets were cleaned many times before the piece was over. How much spit is removed? A teaspoon? A quarter-cup? A cup? Is that rag drenched? Is it made of that crazy absorbent Shamwow material? Is it machine-washable?

This blog has a comments section below if any of you can provide a little insight. Or you can share your pro-harpsichord arguments. I’ll read ‘em, but I’m sticking to my anti-harpsichord guns!

3 comments

Well a lot of spit goes into clarinets and I know I play and no the rag is not drenched but its just a little wet.

  • —Anonymous, March 26, 2013 05:10 pm

I personally love the harpsichord and would love an all baroque evening! (the Stravinsky piece was my least favorite that night)But like you, I wondered about instrument cleaning during the performance - I have seen jazz concerts where I witnessed the same activity. You don't think about the spit when listening to a CD!

  • —Anonymous, April 08, 2013 11:59 am

Oh, please, musicians don't spit into wind instruments. They're nicer people than that. Their breath cools down after it leaves their mouth and condenses, it's an inevitable consequence of natural physics.

  • —Anonymous, April 08, 2013 03:43 pm

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