by Carolyn Winter
Did you know that Northwest DC is home to a flourishing harpsichord concert scene? A scene that draws star-studded names of the harpsichord world: Jean Rondeau, Justin Taylor, Lillian Gordis, Anna Kiskachi, Jory Vinikour, and the like? These brilliant musicians stop here to practice and to present public concerts at metro-area venues including, on special occasions, a private home in Barnaby Woods. During their stays they enjoy all our local offerings – restaurants and pizzerias, shops, and our lovely, peaceful wooded spaces.
These harpsichordists are drawn to our neighborhoods by Capriccio Baroque, Washington, DC’s only harpsichord-centric concert series. How Capriccio Baroque came to be is an unlikely story in which luck played a major role.
It began when a significant, but very uninformed, investment was made in a harpsichord. This could very easily have turned out to be a lost investment. But, happily, it turned out instead to be a life-changer, and one which has brought much joy to the investor and many others.
If you haven’t guessed already, that investor was me. I had retired from a demanding World Bank job and decided to occupy myself by learning a second instrument. But which instrument? I decided on the harpsichord, knowing nothing about the instrument other than that it sounded beautiful on the couple of recordings I had. I assumed, very incorrectly as it turned out, that my long-term piano playing would lead to a speedy mastery of this early keyboard instrument. How very wrong I was!
After getting input from a couple of harpsichordists at concerts abroad, I embarked on a search for a harpsichord. My knowledge of what to look for in a harpsichord was, in retrospect, frighteningly limited. But, sheer luck led me to a beautiful instrument in Rhode Island.
Buying a harpsichord is not a straightforward endeavor. Each instrument is made by hand, and the demanding specifications and exactitudes involved mean many things can go wrong in the building process. It also means each instrument has fairly unique sound properties and decoration, although these are generally informed by historical precedents. And, there is always the possibility that purchasers become beguiled by the beautiful painting and decorations and pay insufficient attention to the instrument’s sound properties.
The instrument I chose was crafted in 1972 by famed U.S. early keyboard builder William Dowd, under commission to John Lewis, the lead player in the renowned Modern Jazz Quartet of the 1970s and 1980s. Lewis made numerous jazz and classical recordings on the instrument. Fortunately, it is a beauty both in terms of sound and appearance.
Once I began lessons and practice, the folly of my venture became clear: Piano-playing techniques are quite inappropriate on the harpsichord. The two instruments actually have little in common beyond their categorization as “keyboards.” Unlike a piano, many harpsichords sport two keyboards, raising questions of which to play and when. The harpsichord’s sound comes from a plucking of the strings, quite unlike the piano’s percussive mechanism. Modest hand movements produce the best sound on the harpsichord, in contrast to the piano. And, harpsichords lack a sustain pedal and have limited dynamic range, something which the player learns to compensate for by using “smoke and mirror” techniques such as over- and under-holding notes and integrating tricky ornamentations.
Initially, I found the unexpected challenges of the harpsichord most dispiriting! The beautiful instrument I now possessed was under the fingers of a rank beginner. In a lightbulb moment, I decided to invite top-flight performers to play and share the harpsichord’s beautiful sound and repertoire with others. And so, the Washington area’s only harpsichord-centric concert series was launched as a nonprofit from my home office in Barnaby Woods.
My venture, Capriccio Baroque, is named after a rhythmic dance form often included in a suite of harpsichord music. The Italian term “capriccio” translates in English as “caper,” a spontaneous, joyful, skipping dance. The name represents all that Capriccio Baroque has come to be – a delightful, ever-evolving retirement passion for me, and a growing hub for amateur harpsichord players and harpsichord music enthusiasts.
Now in its seventh season, Capriccio Baroque has a dedicated and steadily expanding audience base which thrills in hearing world-renowned harpsichordists perform on my growing stable of fine instruments. Yes, I subsequently acquired two more very fine harpsichords, and a further one is under consideration. I dutifully continue to practice and, slowly, improve on my instruments.
Capriccio’s concerts now regularly garner praise from DC’s top reviewers. A special thrill in the 2022-2023 season was the inclusion of Capriccio’s October 2022 concert featuring one of today’s most talked about performers, Jean Rondeau, as a Washington Classical Review “Critic’s Choice.” This rockstar of the harpsichord world has now been featured at Capriccio several times. Other repeat performers are Justin Taylor, who garners awards from the world’s most exacting music reviewers; the artful, incomparable virtuoso Anna Kiskachi; and renowned English recording artist and instrument builder Colin Booth, who has supplied two of Carolyn’s three instruments.
Capriccio also offers master classes and musical gatherings for amateur harpsichordists and, last year, took a tour of harpsichord enthusiasts to northeast Italy to attend a music festival held on an outdoor stage beneath the beautiful Julian Alps. Who knows what the future will bring? Or how many more harpsichords?
Keep abreast of Capriccio Baroque’s concerts at CapriccioBaroque.org. Next up are:
- Justin Taylor, one of today’s most sought-after performers, who comes from Paris to play a program of works by J.S. Bach written in the Italian style (March 18, 2023).
- Lillian Gordis (harpsichord) and Jérôme Hantaï (viola da gamba) also come from Paris to perform works by J.S. Bach, François Couperin and Marin Marais (April 29, 2023).