Five (plus) Questions
Rockin' harpsichord & forbidden tunes: Ars Lyrica's Matthew Dirst goes to thedark side for season finale
When I received an invitation to hear Ars Lyrica's artistic director and harpsichord bad ass Matthew Dirst tickle the ivories to the tune of Johann Sebastian Bach's Partitas No. 3 & 4at the home of William Pannill Sunday, I quickly jumped at the opportunity.
Pannill owns a rare collection of period music instruments. Among them are a clavichord, viols, viola de gamba and three harpsichords — one of them a German 18th-century double-manual commissioned recently from Hubbard Harpsichords.
Listening to Bach's keyboard works in the way they were originally intended — on an instrument built based on a pre-1740 design by Hieronymus Albrecht Hass — proved to be an intense experience. The small, intimate space allowed even the most minute of subtleties to be heard clearly.
Dirst played with superhuman virtuosity and refined strength, towering over the instrument as it were a toy.
Compared to the modern piano, the harpsichord does not project as well, does not sustain its sound (it decays quickly) and the volume of each note is set. It makes no difference if a key is stricken quickly, with force, or gently.
To be an artist on the instrument requires greater creativity. Dirst experimented with time and placement, but only to a point as to not disturb the flow of the phrase.
If a piano offers, for a lack of a better term, more, why would we care to listen to music in what could be considered an antiquated instrument?
For those present, the answer was clear. Because it rocks.
In between the performance and while preparing for Ars Lyrica's final concert of the 2010-11 season, CultureMap talked to Dirst about his interest in early music, the harpsichord, and about his upcoming concert on Friday.
CultureMap: For the audience, listening to the music of Bach up close and personal on a harpsichord evokes the spirit of the era. The subtle nuances and colors are quite present. I would imagine as an accomplished keyboardist, you have experimented playing these pieces also on the modern piano. How does the feel differ?
Matthew Dirst: Playing Bach on piano and harpsichord are completely different experiences. The piano is such a different animal. Some Partitas I have learned first on the harpsichord, others, on piano. But for me, it is most satisfying performing them on the harpsichord because of all the subtleties in the sound. Some movements however, like the Allemande of the E Major Partita, work very well on the modern instrument.
CM: So, is Bach on piano a good idea? Or blasphemous?
MD: I can't say this for all composers, but Bach's music is pretty much indestructable. The musical patterns are so strong that it transfers well to any instrument. Bach himself actually did this for a few of his compositions, so it seems natural to do so. However, I get more satisfaction from performing the Partitas on harpsichord. I enjoy the gradations, subtleties, timing possibilities, and it feels the best for me. But the music is strong enough that it would survive on any instrument.
CM: I would imagine that, like most musicians that specialize in early music, you started with modern piano and switched at some point to harpsichord and organ. What attracted you most about the early music aesthetic?
MD: I became interested in the organ when I was a kid. My mother was a church organist and I began playing the organ when I was old enough to reach the (foot) pedals. The early music interest came later in life, during my masters degree at Southern Methodist University.
CM: We tend to think of early music as genteel, sophisticated and perhaps laid back. In Ars Lyrica's upcoming concert titled "Forbidden Pleasures," you are featuring music by Alessandro Scarlatti that was banned during the opera prohibition in Rome. What was about the music that was so shocking?
MD: It was not the compositions themselves, but mainly the operatic genre. The Pope had declared that opera could not be performed publicly, so composers and musicians found different venues to fill the musical gap.
CM: Will we hear works from Ars Lyrica's recording Alessandro Scarlatti: Euridice dall’Inferno / La Concettione della Beata Vergine on the Naxos label?
MD: We will perform one of Scarlatti's Cello Sonatas from the recording. The rest is new music to us.
CM: Melissa Givens is a local favorite who you are bringing back for this concert. Countertenor Ryland Angel is making his Ars Lyrica debut. What do you love most about working with these two artists?
MD: Ryland and I had a chance to work last year and we really liked working together. I already had the program on the books, and he seemed like the perfect fit. He is an amazing artist with a distinguished career in Europe and America and has put out a lot of recordings. He also works as a pop singer. He communicates really well and has a beautiful voice.
Melissa is one of the company's favorites. We have been working with her for some time. She is an agile soprano with a clear bell-like sound. She's very unique, a delightful audience favorite.
Ars Lyrica "Forbidden Pleasures" is on Friday, 7:30 p.m. at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets start at $31.25, with discounts available for students with ID.