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Westfield Competition: What to Listen For

The Westfield Center International Harpsichord Competition gets under way this afternoon, with the first preliminary round from 1:30 to 4:30 pm, at the Clarice Smith Center. The way that the harpsichord makes sound is so different, something that affects how the player has to interact with the instrument, as to what aspects of sound can be controlled, as well as how the listener judges the outcome. Last week, I spoke to a few of the veteran harpsichordists involved in the Westfield Academy and Competition, and some of what they said could not be included in my preview article for the Washington Post. What will they be listening for in the competitors, and how should one listen to the harpsichord?

Kenneth Slowik, the curator of the Division of Culture and the Arts at the National Museum of American History, put it this way: "The harpsichord is essentially very unmusical," he said, "producing sounds which are like the small continuous explosions inside an internal combustion engine." The musician has to convert those sounds, bring them to life in music. "The harpsichordist must have an active musical imagination in order to be able to make his instrument behave like an expressive device. His ear must be constantly monitoring what his fingers are doing."

Harpsichordist Mitzi Meyerson (photo courtesy of Glossa Music)
As part of my research for the preview article, I watched Mitzi Meyerson conduct a master class with three young harpsichordists at the University of Maryland, part of the Westfield Academy last week. Most harpsichordists start out as pianists, Meyerson said, because that is the instrument that is most likely to be in their home when they are young. "But the approach to the keys is completely different," she pointed out. Players of the modern piano focus weight and power on attack on the key, but “at the harpsichord there is little importance in how you attack the key,” Meyerson notes. “Most of the differentiation of sound is in how to release the key, how long to hold the note, whether to connect it to the following note.” Too much arm weight not only does not help with clarity or strength of sound at the harpsichord but also can obscure the clarity of the fingers.

This particular day, Meyerson was working with three students, who had all brought pieces to play. Meyerson heard them play the piece through once and then helped the students break the piece down and think about every note and detail, hand by hand, measure by measure. In some places, she helped the students loop notes together into groups, deciding where to place the downbeat or strongest note; in others, separating notes helped make the important ones (like syncopations) sound louder, more present to the ear. Many times, she helped the students decide where to “take a breath” like a vocalist. This was not only to give phrasing to the music but also to make sure that the performer actually breathes physically, to keep oxygen flowing. In other sections, she asked the students about how to make repeated sections or motifs different from one another. In still others, different fingerings helped shape the music properly, for example, by positioning the strong third finger on beats one wanted to emphasize. Often she asked the students to analyze the harmony, as unusual chord structures can give important clues about what is important in the piece.

What are the jurors of a harpsichord competition looking for in a young musician? Meyerson is not on the jury, but she will be providing feedback on the first round performance to any competitor who wants to consult her. “What I feel is important is not to be careless, to think about every note, its placement,” she says. “You have to ask yourself, ‘What do I want to say with this music, and how do I say it?’.” Competitions tend to reward musicians who make the fewest mistakes, meaning that risk-taking is discouraged, or at least that is a common perception of competitions. “I would not reward a person who has great hands but nothing to say,” she explains. “There is nothing worse than empty glibness.”

Slowik, serving as the jury chair for this year's Westfield Competition, cites the phrase attributed to the composer Béla Bartók, about competitions being for horses, not for musicians. The jury has designed the competition rules so that the finalists will have to show a mastery of “a fairly wide range of styles, national and chronological,” as well as skills at ornamentation and voicing in counterpoint. “We prize musicality as well as technique,” he made clear. The successful competitor "must have a good repertoire of articulative possibilities in his fingers -- not for nothing did François Couperin call his method L'Art de toucher le clavecin -- and a good grasp of harmony," he concluded. "He must be able to draw his listeners into the private world of his musical imagination. In short, he must be just as good a musician on his chosen instrument as a modern violinist or clarinetist must be on theirs."

Arthur Haas, who as a faculty member at Juilliard is part of that school's expansion of its early music program, is also serving on the Westfield jury. "I look for players who have a real understanding of Baroque performance practice techniques," he told me, "including articulation, expressive use of time, and the differences between the various national and period styles." Harpsichord competitions are important because they draw attention to the importance of the instrument and the seriousness of performers and students of it. A prizewinner himself at both the Paris and Bruges competitions, Haas said, "Competitions do help musicians learn to play under a certain amount of pressure, and they also provide goals for up-and-coming musicians." However, his message to the candidates was supportive. "It is not true that the only good that can come out of competitions is winning," he noted. "Learning the repertoire is a real plus as well as meeting other musicians who are in the same field from all over the world." In the end the results of the competition reflect only the opinions of this set of jurors, not necessarily whether someone is a worthy player or not. "Some of the greatest harpsichordists and early musicians that I know of in my generation never won any competitions."

The Westfield Competition is one of only three harpsichord competitions this year, along with the Concours International Musica Antiqua in Bruges and the Mae and Irving Jurow International Harpsichord Competition sponsored by the Southeast Historical Keyboard Society. Twenty-five harpsichordists, all younger than the cutoff age of 35, from Russia, Estonia, China, South Korea, Japan, Finland, Germany, France, Spain, Canada, and the United States will compete. Based on their performances over three rounds, playing music from the late 16th-century English school up to C.P.E. Bach, winners will receive four awards ranging in value up to the First Prize of $7,500. All those who hear both sessions of the competition’s final round next Saturday can vote to determine the recipient of the Audience Prize of $1,000.

The Westfield Center International Harpsichord Competition takes place this week (August 13-18) at the Clarice Smith Center in College Park. All rounds are free and open to the public. Consult their schedule for further information.

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