FOUR SEASONS harpsichordist Derek Tam explains how playing the harpsichord is different from playing a piano, and similar to being a drummer in a jazz combo.
Are you a harpsichord specialist or do you play other keyboard instruments?
I’m a keyboard omnivore. I specialize on historical instruments such as the harpsichord and fortepiano (that is, early pianos of all kinds), but you’ll find me regularly on a concert grand as well.
I don’t have a preferred keyboard: As long as it’s a quality instrument and it fits the repertoire, I enjoy it!
Four Seasons is a cornerstone of harpsichord repertoire. Does it ever get a little… old?
Never! I’ve had a chance to perform it with some amazing soloists, and it’s endlessly fascinating to experience how divergent each artist’s interpretation can be.
What role does the harpsichord play in the piece?
In the Baroque era, harpsichordists and other chord-playing instrumentalists were often called to play continuo for chamber or orchestral music to fill out the harmony, but also to provide a percussive effect. To do so, harpsichordists would read “figured bass,” which is a bass line usually marked with numbers to signify the chords. The way you play, or “realize,” the chords is completely dependent on the musical context—and one’s own taste or whimsy!
For me, playing continuo style is akin to being both the pianist and drummer in a jazz trio.
What is it about the harpsichord that makes it sound so different from a piano?
Great question, as people often just see that they are both keyboard instruments! The strings are plucked in a harpsichord; in a piano, they are hammered.
Is there any modern repertoire that uses the harpsichord? If so, how is it used differently than in baroque music?
Plenty—from classical music to a surprising number of pop songs!
Do you have to bring your instrument with you to concerts or is it rented?
In most situations, there is not a “resident” harpsichord in a performing space, as there is with pianos. Sometimes, I bring an instrument I own, which is always a treat!
Tell us about the instrument you’ll be playing at the concert.
The instrument I’ll be playing is based on an early 18th-century French harpsichord. It was made in 1985 by Willard Martin, who is based in the idyllic town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
We researched harpsichord jokes on the internet. Does the punchline always include a play on the word “Baroque”?
Q Why couldn't Bach afford a new harpsichord? A He was baroque. Q Why couldn't Handel play his harpsichord? A It was baroquen.
Not necessarily! But it’s the easiest way to go.
Watch Derek and harpsichord in action!
Derek Tam performs in Vivaldi’s iconic masterpiece at the California Symphony’s FOUR SEASONS concert, November 6th and 7th at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek. Tickets are $44-$74 ($20 for students 25 and under), available online or through the Lesher Center Box Office at 925.280.2490.
** Go for Baroque and ask those burning questions you’ve had of harpsichordist Derek Tam, who joins music director Donato Cabrera and soloist Alexi Kenney for 30-minute, pre-concert talks, starting an hour before each performance – free to ticket holders.**