Sunday, February 15, 2009

Fort comme la Morte

One cold winter evening not long ago we paid a visit to the chapel of the St. Paul Seminary to hear a performance by the Society for the Doctrinal Affectation of Baroque Music. This may sound like a P.D.Q. Bach knock-off, but the musicians themselves were deeply serious about their material, which consisted of minor chamber works by Schubert, Beethoven, and Hummel, adapted for performance by fortepiano and a tiny 1830s guitar (both instruments were modern reproductions).

The chapel itself, though Romanesque in style, is also a modern reproduction—and very new in its cut; and while it may be said that the decorative carvings on the capitals fall well short of the masterful renderings at, say, Autun, Vezelay, or Santo Domingo de Silos, the room itself exudes a simplicity and peace that was well-suited to the evening’s event.

We sat in second row, not more than fifteen feet from the performers, Christopher Kachian (guitar) and David Jenkins (fortepiano); and this was just as well, considering the modest volume to be got from such instruments. The pews were hard and the sound was soft, but the balance was good and the musicians were adept, and both were wearing the kind of colorful swirly tie that I wish I could find a few more of at Value Village.

The fortepiano is the eight-track-tape of the keyboard world—a bridge between the harpsichord and the modern piano. It lacked both the bristly hauteur of the former and the rich powerful sound of the latter, and soon fell into eclipse. In recent years many new fortepianos have been built, and you can now easily obtain recordings. In fact, as I type these words I’m listening to a performance of Mozart’s Piano Trio in E, K. 542, being played on period instruments. The sound is thin and brittle—but it’s certainly different, and there are times when it fits the mood of the moment perfectly.

The chapel was more than half-full that night, and the musicians played with a sort of relaxed cheer that helped the music to sing out. The Schubert piece was the most interesting of the three. Beethoven’s offering was a theme-and-variation composition that grew monotonous, and the Hummel work reminded us why that man’s name has never become a household word.

Many in the crowd were young—guitar or keyboard students at nearby St. Thomas University, to judge from the conversations I overheard during the intermission. Others had the look of seasoned eccentrics. I would be proud to be included in the later category, but all the same, it was fun to find myself briefly in the midst of that youthful ambiance, to be reminded of our years on campus, when we voraciously absorbed as much experience, musical and otherwise, as we could.

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