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Music of Bach, Scarlatti drew harpsichordist to her instrument

Music of Bach, Scarlatti drew harpsichordist to her instrument

If it hadn’t been for the music of Bach and Scarlatti, Wendy Young would never have become the pre-e

If it hadn’t been for the music of Bach and Scarlatti, Wendy Young would never have become the pre-eminent harpsichordist that she is.

“I hated harpsichord concerts,” Young said. “They were hideous, boring. They gave me a headache. And I hated harpsichord recordings.”

She will give a solo harpsichord recital Friday at Zankel Music Center playing . . . what else? The music of Bach and Scarlatti.

Young was a piano major at New York University and not sure what direction she wanted to take.

For one thing, she said, she couldn’t figure out why she disliked harpsichord so much since the music that was written for it was so remarkable.

“I loved the music. The music of Bach and Scarlatti is incredible keyboard music,” she said. “But I wondered how it was possible to write this music because I wasn’t hearing it on this instrument or at concerts.”

Harpsichordist Wendy Young

WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday

WHERE: Zankel Music Center, Skidmore College

HOW MUCH: Free

MORE INFO: 580-5321, www.skidmore.edu

Her solution was to take a semester to study harpsichord, which led her to more study with famed harpsichordist Kenneth Cooper.

Love affair

“I went from being a pianist to a pianist who played harpsichord, then to a harpsichordist who played piano and then only harpsichord,” she said. “Harpsichord took over. It became a love affair.”

Young was in luck. Interest in Baroque music, once a rarity in concerts, had steadily been increasing since the 1970s and more builders were making beautiful harpsichord reproductions. Beginning in the 17th century, harpsichords were made in several European countries and each builder created an instrument that was peculiar to its nationality.

“Harpsichords can be Italian, Flemish or German and each sounds different and feels different. And those made in the 17th century are different than those made in the 18th century,” Young said.

She owns a 1706 French harpsichord after Dumont, a noted builder. The instrument she will play on Friday is a two-manual French harpsichord circa 1750 that was built by David Rubio in 1971. The instrument was donated to Skidmore College in 2010 by Virginia Pleasants.

A former concert pianist who taught at London’s Royal College of Music, Pleasants performed throughout Europe in the 1950s on the harpsichord, even garnering seven curtain calls for a 1956 recital in Munich. Her donation to Skidmore came about because she had worked with Richard Hester, a local builder and fortepianist who is associated with the college.

Pleasants continued to give recitals in the Philadelphia area up until 2006 when she was 95. She died last year at age 100.

One aspect of playing Baroque music is that the musician must have ornamenting skills. Many Baroque composers expected instrumentalists, and especially keyboardists of the era, to add scales, trills or little turns to what was on the written page. Then and now, the degree to which this is done depends on the individual’s taste.

“Some people take every opportunity to ornament to make the music sound like a gooey banana split,” Young said. “But how many [splits] can you eat without getting a stomach ache? But a little bit here and then there — yum.”

She prefers to serve the music first and keep things simple, she said.

“There’s no pedal on the harpsichord, so I use ornaments only to give the music an extra oomph,” she said. “It gives more flexibility as long as one chooses good taste.”

Friday’s program will be some of Young’s favorites by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) and Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757). This includes five of Bach’s Sinfonias, which are also known to beginning pianists as his Three-part Inventions.

“They’re thought of as kids’ pieces. I wish,” Young said with a laugh. “They’re rarely performed but they’re like mini-fugues. That third voice makes the counterpoint way more complicated. They’re short little nuggets of music — each a world.”

Bach’s French Suite No. 5 in G Major is more sophisticated. Although based on dance forms, the music is not meant to be danced to, so tempos are up to the performer. Young will play few ornaments.

“I like the music’s simplicity,” she said.

She will play six of Scarlatti’s 555 sonatas. Although none have movements, each is grouped into two parts with each part repeated.

“Each is an entire world,” Young said.

Her program reflects an ongoing project to eventually play and record both composers’ entire keyboard output. This concert is one of the few solo recitals she currently does in concert halls — most of her recitals are done as salons in people’s houses, she said.

Other settings

Otherwise, Young performs in a chamber music or solo with orchestra setting. In past years, however, she did a recording with the Art Farmer Trio playing jazz versions of the Bach “Brandenburg” concerti and provided the leitmotif for Tom Cruise as the vampire in “Interview with the Vampire” (1994).

Her most recent recording was on a disc of Gerald Busby’s music (Innova 2005) in which she performed “Parallel Suite for Two Harpsichords [with Kenneth Cooper] with Two Gymnasts on Parallel Bars.”

Young currently teaches harpsichord and piano at Princeton University.

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