Summertime chamber music at Duke University is a nice change of pace from the concerts given during the standard academic year. Everything is a little less formal, ticket prices are a bit lower, and the performers present an eclectic mix of works. One of the loveliest additions to the several concert venues on the Duke campus is the Doris Duke Center, located in the Sarah P. Duke Gardens. Although this has been in existence for nearly two years, I had not had had an opportunity to attend a concert there until May 27. It was then that harpsichordist Elaine Funaro, along with several of her very talented friends, presented a program entitled “Something Old and New, Borrowed and Blue.”

The Doris Duke Center is one of those spaces that make you feel good just to sit there. It has massive beams stretched across a very high ceiling, beautiful lighting, and a mountain lodge feeling. The concert was presented so the performers appeared before large windows that looked out onto a peacefully landscaped field. Very comfortable seats and a cool temperature setting on a very hot night were extra bonuses.

When most people think of the harpsichord, they usually conjure up images of bewigged gentlemen in overly ornate rooms playing music that was considered old-fashioned 200 years ago. There is an enormous wealth of superb music written by Bach, Scarlatti, Rameau, Couperin, and Handel, to name just a few. With the invention of the new-fangled pianoforte, the harpsichord slowly grew out of favor and was literally abandoned as an instrument during the late Classical and Romantic periods in music. However, unlike other instruments (e.g. the lute) that suffered a similar fate, the harpsichord had a great renaissance in the 20th century, and many wonderful works were written for it, both as a solo and ensemble instrument. Although there is quite enough repertoire from its pre-1800 golden days to keep any harpsichordist busy, Elaine Funaro has expanded this great treasure to include performance of works written in the 20th century. Last year, Funaro presented a program that featured works written in the 1990s! This concert stepped back a bit to compositions mainly from the 1950s.

The concert began with a pair of pieces for solo harpsichord, one composed by Alexei Haieff and the more interesting Scherzo and Trio by Daniel Pinkham. Like many of the works in this program, these both had very quirky and compelling rhythmic figures – perhaps to help alleviate the monotonous dynamic level of the harpsichord.

Next up was the “old” work promised in the program title, which also tied into its wedding connotations – several selections from The Wedding Cantata by J.S. Bach. Funaro was joined by cellist Brent Wissick, violinist Belinda Swanson, flutist Akal Dev Sharonne, and soprano Penelope Jensen. The ensemble took a while to find common ground on their tempos, but once they did it settled into a nicely swinging baroque sound. Wissick, an internationally recognized expert on baroque practices, played a baroque cello. This type of instrument uses gut strings and is played without an endpin, which requires the performer to hold the cello between his knees. Wissick was especially captivating in his continuo lines, some of which were quite virtuosic.

We are fortunate to have in this area a singing jewel in the person of Penelope Jensen, and she displayed her remarkable versatility in the selections from this cantata and other works. Her voice is pure, with impeccable intonation and clear pronunciation even when singing in a quasi-dead language. She got her opportunity to do just that as she, Funaro, Sharonne and clarinetist Jane Hamborsky performed Four Fragments from the Canterbury Tales by Lester Trimble. Written in 1958, this work uses Chaucer texts and Middle English dialect. Another singer might have chosen the modern English version (both versions were printed in the program), but Jensen sang in the authentic, tongue-twisting language. These are bawdy stories, and the vibrant music and excellent ensemble playing made this a unique treat.

Tapestry Concerto by Albert Glinsky, described by Funaro as a folk-like piece almost reminiscent of Crosby, Stills & Nash, was on tap next. Written for flute, violin, cello, and harpsichord, this was appealing in a New Age way. It has some very nice lyrical moments but seemed more appropriate as background music for a massage in a darkened room.

This was a wonderful evening of works that, except for the Bach, were probably new to everyone in the audience. My only real criticism is the lack of an intermission. This concert lasted a full hour and 40 minutes, which is just too long to not have a break, and there was no real reason not to do so. Funaro needs to be commended for unearthing these compositions that show that the harpsichord is still a very vibrant and contemporary instrument. We look forward to hearing more of these, perhaps in the 2005 Summer Festival of Chamber Music.

Note: Duke’s Summer Festival of Chamber Music continues with concerts on 6/3, 6/17, 6/20, & 6/25.