Plucking it out: All Bach harpsichord concert at Saint James
All Bach Harpsichord Concert
Sunday, March 11, 3 p.m.
Sean Price, director of music ministries
The Episcopal Church of Saint James, 581 Valley Road
(973) 744-0270 ext. 18,
By GWEN OREL
Sean Price wants you to know that you’ve probably never heard Bach.
Not as Bach intended you to hear it.
The inventions and partitas you hear on classical music stations are almost always played on the grand piano — but the grand piano didn’t exist in Bach’s day.
Johannes Sebastian Bach, who lived from 1685 to 1750, composed his keyboard music for the organ, clavichord and harpsichord.
The instrument looks similar to the piano, but it’s not, said Price with a laugh. Price, the director of music at Saint James Episcopal Church, fell in love with the harpsichord when he first heard it at Westminster Choir College.
As part of the concert series Price presents at Saint James Episcopal Church, he will perform a solo harpsichord concert this Sunday, March 11. Many Montclairites know the music series for its annual presentation of the Oratorio Society of New Jersey’s “Messiah.”
“I’m of the purist mindset, that music written for harpsichord should be played on a harpsichord, or an instrument known to Bach,” Price said. “He had a very specific instrument in mind.”
And when he heard the harpischord, suddenly, he said, Bach’s music made sense.
An organist from the age of 11, Price fell in love at first note with the harpischord while at Westminster Choir College.
The New York Philharmonic was playing with “Handel’s Messiah,” and “on a break I walked over to the harpsichord. I had never seen one before. I was 21 years old at the time, it was about 10 years ago. I absolutely fell in love with it.
“I sat down and plucked, and played some Bach.”
Price began taking lessons on the instrument the next day: “I never attempted to play Bach on the piano ever again.”
He explained, “When you play Bach on the piano, the technique is very different. The feeling under the fingers is different.” On the piano, strings are hammered. On the harpischord, strings are plucked with quills. No matter how hard you press a key, Price said, the sound will not be larger on the harpsichord, and there won’t be any dynamic contrast. Nor are there damper pedals.
Instead, to create an illusion of a note sustaining, a player holds down the first three notes of a scale and continues up.
“It makes playing Bach very easy, actually,” he said. “Bach writes music so you can hang on to certain notes, and certain notes not so much.” Pianists using pedals on the music ruins the original intent of the piece, he said: “It’s a completely different animal.”
Price, who has been at Saint James for six years, will perform on a large French double harpsichord, one of the two that he owns. The instruments themselves are beautiful, he said, often evoking “the grandeur of the Baroque Era.”
Sound will evoke the era, as will candlelight.
“I really want my audience to have a different perspective on the music,” Price said. He will play music less widely heard, including the Italian Concerto, he said. Often when he hears classical music on the radio, he feels that the stations “go out of their way not to broadcast the harpischord, which intrigues me.
“I think it’s very special.”