Classical Music World: How Do They Do That?


LACA Artistic Director
After Red Priest’s phenomenal performance on the Los Alamos Concert Association series last week, several people asked me the same question: How did the ensemble transport a harpsichord all the way from Great Britain?

The answer: They didn’t. We rented an instrument for them to use. That sounds simple enough but the reality makes for quite a story. 

Harpsichords are notoriously finicky instruments. They don’t take kindly to being moved about or to temperature and humidity changes. They need to be tuned by a skilled technician before each use and often during concert intermissions. 

To complicate matters, they come in many varieties. Some have single keyboards, others two. Some have little knobs that can couple two keyboards or create special effects like making the instrument sound more like a lute or guitar. There is very little standardization. I always feel for pianists who face strange instruments wherever they play. Harpsichordists have much more variation to deal with and often are stuck playing really dreadful instruments.   

Red Priest’s harpsichordist requested “a Flemish double if possible, tuned to A440 Viotti.” What that means is that he wanted a harpsichord with two keyboards. (Don’t ask what “Flemish” means…too complicated!) It needed to be tuned to A440, which is a precise frequency in the vicinity of A above middle C on a piano. Viotti is a system for how the notes in a scale are related to each other mathematically so that pitches are consistent up and down the entire keyboard. Viotti is just one of a dozen or more different ways a harpsichord can be tuned, so this is a very technical matter. 

Given our marching orders, we set out to locate a Flemish double and a technician who could provide the requested tuning.  

Many of you may remember a local fellow, Robert Walker, who built a harpsichord and loaned it to LACA regularly. Following his death, we lost track of the instrument. It resurfaced a couple of years ago but there were insurmountable insurance issues that prevented us from using it. Inquiries through every possible avenue between here and Albuquerque yielded no one with a harpsichord to loan or rent.

LACA’s board president, Vernon Smith, began a Google search that stretched farther and farther from Los Alamos as days passed and the concert date drew near. Miraculously, Vernon located a mention way at the bottom of an obscure website that someone in the Denver area had a French double (not Flemish, but close!) for rent. 

One phone call later, we had lined up not only a fine instrument, but the owner and technician who would, for a very reasonable fee, bring it to Los Alamos, tune it and be there for any technical issues that might result from the indignities of transport.

Over the years LACA has rented or borrowed harps, string basses, and various percussion instruments. Our next concert will feature a most unusual instrument, a bandoneón. Fortunately, the great virtuoso Daniel Binelli and his collaborators, Cuarteto Latinoamericano, a standard string quartet, will be bringing their own instruments. If you don’t know what a bandoneón is (I didn’t!) go to our website and listen to this remarkable ensemble, which will perform at 4 p.m., March 15 in the Smith. See you there!