Elaine Funaro’s May 29 “Nod to the 90’s” program, the first offering in Duke’s 2003 Summer Festival of Music, held in Kirby-Horton Hall in the Sarah P. Duke Memorial Gardens, gave the overflow crowd a great deal more than just the fine playing by one of the area’s – and, arguably, the nation’s – best harpsichordists performing today, that we have become accustomed to. The program, subtitled “Does Time Have a Sound?,” featured selections composed in the decade of the 90s of five consecutive centuries, from the 16th through the 20th, linked with narrative that included musings on that question, personal reminiscences, historical information about the works, their composers and their contexts, and even recitations of poems. Jeff Storer, of Manbites Dog Theater and the Duke faculty, assisted with the development of the script. Funaro also wore costumes rather than traditional concert attire, suggestive of the respective centuries and cleverly designed by Carol Lee Worden to allow changes as the narrative was delivered. A wrap-around skirt, for example, was reversible, with different fabrics representative of the 17th and 18th centuries, both also contained in the coordinated blouse, and allowing Funaro to unbutton the waistband and flip it around as she spoke her lines.

Funaro began by recounting her first encounter with the harpsichord in a New York City music store as a child learning to play the piano, and being enthralled, seduced even, by its distinctive sound, which suggested even to her young ears another world and other possibilities for nuances beyond those offered by a percussive mechanism. The opening works played were “Carman’s Whistle” and “The Second Pavian and Galliarde” from William Byrd’s My Lady Nevells Book of 1591. These were followed by works of Henry Purcell dating from 1692: his four-movement (a Prelude and three dances) Lesson No. 5 in C and two selections from his Miscellaneous Pieces, the “Riggadoon” and “Ground.”

Next up was the most interesting segment historically as Funaro launched into a rendition of the Marseillaise, La Marche des Marseillais par le Citoyen C[laude] Balbastre , dating from 1792. This was the year that the Reign of Terror was at its height, it will be recalled, leading up to the executions of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. A performance of this piece on a harpsichord brought into the courtroom by her supporters apparently saved the composer of the following piece, Hélène Montgeroult, professor at the newly formed Paris Conservatoire accused of Royalist leanings, from the guillotine, as reported in Funaro’s narrative. The Prestissimo movement of the first of Montgeroult’s Sonatas, Op. 1, dating from 1795, was delightful and left this reviewer wishing to hear the balance of the work.

In the 19th century, with the development of the fortepiano and then the modern piano, the harpsichord fell into serious neglect and disuse. Funaro knew only of a single work, which she played for us, the Rigodon by Francis Thomé dating from 1892, for that century, its date having determined the decade of focus for the evening’s program. Thanks to a rebirth of interest in the instrument beginning in the 1930s, the 20th century has more to offer, and the artist herself has been heavily involved with the encouragement of new compositions for it through her activities with the Southeastern Historical Keyboard Society (listed in our links page) at the century’s end. She offered Timothy Brown’s Suite Española , which incorporates some Latin dance rhythms including a tango, and two of Timothy Tikker’s Three Bulgarian Dances , both compositions dating from 1999, as proof that the instrument is alive and well as we begin the 21st century and that its sound still has something to offer to modern musicmaking. Hopefully, this will still be the case when this century reaches its decade of the 90s, even if none of us are here to know firsthand.

The recital was well crafted, beginning with the selection of the works that fit around the point of departure, illustrated the importance of dance rhythms in the instrument’s repertoire, and demonstrated its capabilities. One must admit, however, that its representation of cannon fire is somewhat weak and unimpressive – laughable is an adjective that might spring more readily to mind; it was certainly quaint, and Funaro exploited that well. The narrative was likewise well written, returning to the themes of time and sound as the evening progressed through the intermission-less performance. The whole was as much an event, both theatrical and musical, as a concert. Although it was not quite the multi-media presentation that soprano Terry Rhodes’ “Women of the Wild West” show (March 2002, covered by this reviewer) was, it was nonetheless a creative whole, and one entirely appropriate to the instrument. Funaro referred to it in her written program comments as a “time travel experience,” and it was a most pleasant and interesting journey that she took us on.