“Old & Bold/Bold & Blue: The Art of the Harpsichord” was the title of the third repeat of a series of five concerts given with support of the art museums of Chapel Hill, Durham, Raleigh, and Wilmington. Aliénor is a non-profit organization that promotes new music for the harpsichord through concerts, commissions, and a competition. The six competitions so far have generated more than 400 new scores from composers from around the world. Elaine Funaro, Aliénor’s executive director, was joined by Beverly Biggs for this imaginative mix of solo and duo performances of old and new music played on two superb instruments crafted by famed maker Richard Kingston. Biggs played a fine traditional two-manual harpsichord. Funaro played Kingston’s final creation, Opus #333, which was specially commissioned by Funaro to bring a visual impact as a work of art for performing new music. Painter Lisa Creed carried out Funaro’s love of the color blue as part of her bold and inventive decoration.

This weekend has been a great one for hearing both Kingston’s harpsichords and the music of François Couperin, le Grand (1668-1733)! On September 24, Carolina Baroque, in Salisbury, presented a broad survey of the composer’s music from small ensembles to vocal works, reviewed here. The continuo keyboard was a fine Kingston built in 1986 with its lid traditionally decorated by Pamela Gladding. Its soundboard is graced by NC native flowers and insects and the lid painting is of The Peaceable Kingdom, inspired by works by the untrained painter Edward Hicks (1780-1849).

Funaro’s older harpsichord, used at this concert and played by Biggs, is sparsely decorated. Creed’s brilliant treatment of Opus #333 can be seen on Aliénor’s website. Most of Funaro’s program was built around the backbone of the Eight Preludes from Couperin’s L’Art de Toucher le Clavecin (1717). Couperin’s famous book of style and technique instructions was the guideline given to the ten winning composers drawn from Aliénor’s most recent competition (2008) for new works for the harpsichord.

Couperin’s Eight Preludes and the wide-ranging efforts of ten contemporary composers were sandwiched between Pièces de Clavecin (1705) by Gaspard Le Roux (ca. 1660-1707), which opened the concert, and Funaro’s two-harpsichord arrangement of Pièces de Clavecin (1746) by Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer (c.1705-55). Le Roux’s work is an example of the style, was codified by Couperin, in which much is unwritten improvisation. Swaths of forests have been sacrificed by musicologists debating ornamentation. Considering the density of ornaments spread between the two harpsichords it is hard to imagine a single player with two hands playing those in Royer’s extraordinary work.

Colorful conductor Sir Thomas Beecham famously quipped “The sound of a harpsichord is like two skeletons copulating on a tin roof in a thunderstorm.” Several friends claim the tinkling sound gets on their nerves. While these complaints may fit the sound of cheap kit-built instruments, comparing one of these to Kingston’s magnificent harpsichords is like comparing Ripple to a fine wine! Kingston’s instruments have rich, warm sound with a deep, resonant bass register and a pure, focused treble. My initial impression was that Kingston’s earlier instrument, played by Biggs, has a fuller, plusher lower range. Opus #333 is by no means deficient in its bass. Funaro said it was unique in being able to dampen the strings on both manuals. It was delightful to savor the contrasts and blending of the two harpsichords over the course of Couperin’s Preludes.

The ten new works were surprisingly enjoyable, with wild harmonics and other modernisms. The wide palette of color and dynamics belied the supposed limitations of the instrument’s plucked strings. Rachel Laurin’s “Prelude” is very dissonant.  The “Alpha Prelude” of Thomas Donahue is fast-paced with plenty of repetition. Ron McKean’s “Water” is gentle and slow. The spare “Prelude les Résonances” of Andrew Gustar was followed by Edward Gerber’s very brief “and then they are gone,” which features lovely lute stops. This was in stark contrast to the assertive “Millennium Prelude Passion” by Rudy Davenport. Pablo Escande’s “Interludium” suggests the strumming of guitars. Philip Underwood’s melancholy “La Rejouissance” was paired with the jazzy and perky “Couperiniana” of Kent Holliday.

Birth of a Harpsichord, a delightful short stop-action animated film by Andrea Love, preceded the concert. She wittily combined puppets with interviews with her mother Elaine Funaro, Richard Kingston, and Lisa Creed. The course of visual art surely does not run smooth and straight! A panel of the performers, harpsichord maker, and painter expanded on comments in Love’s video and responded to many questions from the audience. I missed musicologist Edward Kottick’s pre-concert lecture given in a different part of the old NC Museum of Art.

This concert will repeat October 2 in The Music House in Greenville and October 3 in the Cameron Museum in Wilmington. For details, see our calendar.