Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Musician Spotlight: Webb Wiggins, Harpsichordist

Webb Wiggins will be the featured musician in Catacoustic's upcoming concert, "Awakening of the Harpsichord." The following is an interview with this exceptional musician:

First, how would you describe the harpsichord?

Essentially, a harpsichord is an inherently un-expressive instrument! There is no sustain or dynamic variation in the sound. There are subtle differences in the timbre of the sound if there is more than one set of strings. The strings are plucked by a plectra (originally of crow quill, now usually delrin). The variety of length of note and the variety of articulation is how we create the illusion of dynamic and expression: ie, a longer note implies and is perceived as louder than a shorter note; a note sounding out of silence implies and is perceived as louder than a note sounding while first note is still sounding.

What drew you to early music?

It was the specific difference between consonant and dissonant harmonies. In the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries most music uses traditional harmony (that which we still enjoy in most popular music of today). When a note foreign to other notes in a chord is introduced, dissonance occurs. These dissonances can occur between chords (weak beats and softer dissonances) or simultaneous with the introduction of a chord (strong beats and louder dissonances). This 'pain and relief effect' truly moves me.

What are some of the types of early music, such as ballads, dance, etc.?

Many new forms were created in baroque music: toccatas, cantatas, opera, dance suites to name a few. The first four are of Italian origin; dance suites are essentially French-based. Most baroque music is either specifically or loosely based on dance rhythms, many from much earlier times. Non-dance-based music is perhaps the other major area - improvisational: pieces either truly improvised (in church services or as preludes to dance pieces). Aside from dances, most other forms of baroque music are multi-sectional, having various styles and moods in one longer piece; the precursor to multi-movement works (sonatas, symphonies, etc).

Tell us how you approach the upcoming “Awakening” concert.

This is a little different from most concerts I play in that I'm essentially choosing most of the music. Unlike most of the ensembles with whom I play, you'll probably hear more seventeenth century than eighteenth century music, since I'm drawn to it, and I think I communicate it successfully.

Who are your favorite composers?

Johann Jacob Froberger (1616-1667) is my favorite. I have the greatest respect for JS Bach of course, and there are many composers I adore who are not baroque. But if I limit this to keyboard music, including Froberger, there's Louis Couperin, Dietrich Buxtehude, Jan Pietersson Sweelinck, Girolami Frescobaldi - all seventeenth century composers. I also have to say I like the decadent French composers at the end of the baroque: Jacques Duphly, Claude Balbastre, Armand-Louis Couperin.

What single piece of music is your favorite?

Can't even begin to imagine. Often I discover my fave in the midst of preparing for a concert, then it's replaced by another piece at the next concert.......

Is there anything else you would like to add for our readers?

I'm very honored to be asked to give this program. I've enjoyed working with Catacoustic in the past and look forward to becoming introduced to Catacoustic's new harpsichord.


Anonymous said...

Some issues with this:

1. Firstly, isn't the term ''inexpressive,'' not 'un-expressive?'

2. Also, the harpsichord is not inexpressive; it is just expressive in a different way, and the truly great players understand this and capture it.

3. Truly great players with the greatest technics first play Bach, then other music. To truly test a musician, give them Bach. If they can't handle it, then, well....you've got a Midwestern Early Music scene. Congratulations.

Annalisa Pappano said...

Dear Anonymous,
Thank you for reading the Catacoustic blog. This particular blog entry was an interview, so I did not want to take grammatical liberties. Also, both words “inexpressive” and “unexpressive” are permissible.
Webb Wiggins is one of the great harpsichord players, and the sentence you refer to was exactly your point: that the instrument is expressive in a different way.
Webb actually played Bach in our concert and made beautiful music with that piece. I have heard few musicians who can move people in the same manner that he does. Webb joined us for a concert about four years ago, and people are still talking about how they were moved by his solo. Also, his humble spirit and lack of a huge ego make his musicianship all the more enjoyable. I am convinced that this is a huge part of why he is in such demand in this country. Another wonderful thing about Webb is that he is an amazingly gifted instructor. Two of his former students (Adam Pearl and John McKean) have performed with Catacoustic, and are among the finest in the next generation of excellent harpsichord players.
I assume that you must know about the early music scene in the Midwest and know that the two finest universities to study early music in the US are in Indiana and Ohio. It is most unfortunate that many early music specialists move to larger cities. Those who remain in the Midwest must become pioneers who create opportunities in a more difficult circumstance, since we cannot call up our neighbor friend who plays early music professionally to do a concert. It takes much more thought and effort for musicians in out-of-the way places to produce exciting and vibrant programs of early music. From reading the Catacoustic blog and visiting our website, you are aware that Cincinnati does not have a dearth of early music activity. We have an exciting range of unique programming: from Cavalieri’s Lamentations of Jeremiah to music for the pardessus de viole. I dare say that this music is not being performed elsewhere in the country, if not in the world! We offer a variety of music programs in our concert season, a viola da gamba rental program for the community to learn to play early music, educational workshops for area amateur and pre-professional musicians, and outreach for youth and the aging, amongst other things. I also teach viola da gamba to a talented group of students at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. We hope to create an environment in Cincinnati that will not apologize for being in the middle of the country, but that will make it easier for other professional and amateur musicians to reside here and in other Midwestern cities. I am pleased that Catacoustic is able to transcend the stereotypical “Midwestern early music scene” through concerts like Webb’s and other programs.
I appreciate your input, and thank you for reading the Catacoustic blog.

Annalisa Pappano