The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: The Ear learns about early music instruments at Trevor Stephenson’s enjoyable House Music Concert No. 2

July 1, 2010
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Two weeks ago, I attended the second concert of “house music” offered by Madison early music specialist Trevor Stephenson at his west side home

This time it was a sold-out  concert of trio sonatas by Handel, Haydn, Leclair and Corelli with guest violinist Brandi Berry and guest cellist Anna Steinhoff (below).

The concerts take place in a remodeled section of Stephenson’s own home, a music room with room for his harpsichord, fortepiano and 19th century piano as well as for about 35 listeners. (Tickets are $30.)

It was a dark story night … and in this case that is no cliche. Through the generous skylights we could see the wind-shaken trees and the orange evening sky.

“Looks like a tornado sky,” said one listener.

It sure did. But it only served to bond us all together. It also taught me which music I valued more: I thought, “I wouldn’t mind so much if the tornado took me during the workman-like Hadyn, but please not during the Handel or beautiful and highly ornamented Corelli.”

This time, the concert was held in the round (below; all pictures taken by me), which may have affected the sound of the harpsichord that was flush against the wall. Still it allowed many more listeners to see and hear the terrific baroque cellist and baroque violinist who were guest performers.

The intimacy of the music and the sociability of the audience – performers and listeners mingle at intermission over desserts and wine –highly recommend this small audience format.

But another of the best aspects is the chance to learn about the early music and how it is made.

Stephenson himself is a born educator who explains things with clarity and wit, with humor and patience. He explained the replica of the Bach-era harpsichord and the mechanism of the harpsichord.

Then we got to hear the first-rate Chicago-based string players – who excelled in tone, precision and especially continuo rhythm and intricate ornamentation – discuss their instruments.

Brandi Berry explained how her violin (below top) is a hybrid with features of both a Stradivarius and an Amati, with no metal parts; and how the bow (below bottom), bending away from the strings instead of towards them, allow for equal pressure in both directions.

We also learned from cellist Anna Steinhoff that the custom-made cello cannot be used in more modern music because the neck (below) is not long enough to reach certain notes. (The earlier keyboards had a similar limit of range. In his sonatas, for example, Beethoven wrote notes that could not be played on most of the keyboards of his day.)

I do have one suggestion: It would be good to have even just a single computer print-out sheet with the titles of works performed (I’ll bet Handel wrote more than one Trio Sonata in A minor) plus a some brief notes of the points highlighted by the commentaries about the music and the instruments. Plus, it’s nice to have a souvenir, however informal, of the event.

The same trio performed the same program on the same instruments in late June in Whitefish Bay. They will do repeat performances on Aug. 8 in Evanston, Ill., and on Sunday, Sept. 26, at 2 p.m. in the Monroe Arts Center.

Stephenson, who also directs the Madison Bach Society and is currently performing and lecturing in California, says he has three house concerts planned for the upcoming season, including an all-Bach concert with a flute sonata, a gamba sonata and some harpsichord pieces.

The Ear looks forward to them.

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Posted in Classical music

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