Duo for Harpsichord and Jackhammer
We were premiering our new harpsichord in its solo capacity and so had both the concert grand and the harpsichord ready to rock and roll. I run open rehearsals so that the students can drop in for 30-45 minutes as their schedules permit. They each get to play and receive feedback from both me and whoever else is there. I love the way this turns into a great learning experience in last minute adjustments to the hall and general performance advice.
But I digress…
We were ready to rock and roll. Three students arrived right at 2 p.m. Two were performing on the harpsichord. We started with some Bach and that is when it happened. In the words of P.G Wodehouse, “ There breezed a noise.”
The sky had been blue, the hall quiet. The construction barricades had been removed. None of us was prepared for what happened next. Yet there it was unmistakably. Jackhammer!
Remarkably it seemed to be in the key of G Major because the second student’s Bach Prelude came out as though it had been written as a duo and I didn’t even know that they had jackhammers in Bach’s day much less that he considered them to be musical instruments.
“Has anyone noticed how it stops when we stop???,” said one student. “Is anyone playing the Harmonious Blacksmith?,” asked another.
An unexpected life lesson for musicians it was. We don’t always have the optimum conditions for practice, rehearsal or performance but we have to tough it out and do the best we can.
I talked to pianist Shai Wosner last week (look for his Artist Portrait next week here on the blog) and we discussed this very topic. He told me about a time many years ago when he was practicing for a performance. His technician claimed to have a wonderful solution that, when sprayed on the action, would make the keys wonderfully responsive. He let him do what he was planning to do and said, “sure enough, one after the other the keys in the middle of the piano just went out to lunch.”
Once, the piano was so bad at a venue that he decided not to take any repeats because it was so painful for both himself and the audience. Needless to say the concert was over in record time.
Another time, when performing the Ligeti Piano Concerto, he was nearing the cadenza and began to notice that about 25% of the keys had just stopped working all together. Sure enough he got to the cadenza and powered through 75% of the notes. He said the conductor gave him such looks of alarm. “What was going on???”
I have had my share of situations over the years. Right before an undergraduate performance of the Poulenc Flute Sonata, my flautist partner told me three times that she wanted to tune between the second and third movements. She told me again just as we went onstage. The last movement starts with a bang and doesn’t look back. I made sure I was ready to give her an A and was sitting there with egg on my face when she started the movement. She had meant that she was going to make a minor adjustment and I shouldn’t start too soon. Go figure…
I’ve told this story before, but it is just too good not to retell here. A number of years ago, I was performing a selection of pieces from Messiaen’s Regard’s of the Infant Jesus. It was near the very quiet ending of the First Communion of the Virgin, that the knocking began. It was followed by fierce whispering. To me it went on forever and the glorious ending of the piece was ruined. “Is this the place?”, a voice said. Cue a furious whispered discussion after which the voice came again. “I don’t think this is the place.” I wanted to holler, “NO, NO, NO, This Is NOT the place!!!” Let’s just say that when I began the final piece, there was indeed a royal cacophony–my goose-stepping Magi were larger than life.
In short, stuff happens. Life throws you curveballs just to see if you are paying attention. The real question for me is why was the jackhammer in G Major anyway? Some combination of the density of the concrete and the velocity of the tool or perhaps deep respect for the greatness of J. S. Bach?