Adam Pearl wants to change how people think about the harpsichord. His performance this Saturday, Feb. 24, will showcase the instrument with the extensive Baroque classic, Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.”
“I love this piece to death,” Pearl said. “I’ve been playing it for quite a while now, and I don’t get sick of it.”
Pearl is the principal harpsichordist for Philadelphia’s Baroque Orchestra, called Tempesta Di Mare, and a faculty instructor for harpsichord and keyboard at the Peabody Conservatory.
While studying piano at Peabody, Pearl took a class on the harpsichord, a 400-year-old keyboard that achieved peak prominence in the 17th and 18th centuries. “[That class] was the first time I’d ever played a harpsichord,” he said, “and, I don’t know, I found myself being really good at it, and liking the music a lot.” Pearl also enjoys the “freedom of interpretation” that comes with working with an instrument and a repertoire that are this old.
Pearl specialized in harpsichord at the graduate level and ended up teaching the very class he took. “I’ve taught that keyboard class for the past 11 years,” he said. While compositions for harpsichord continue to emerge today, Pearl specializes in historical performance. He researches, interprets and performs pieces from the harpsichord’s original period of popularity, the Baroque era. The harpsichord was eventually replaced as the most popular keyboard by the more advanced pianoforte (or piano, for short) of the Classical Period in the later 18th century.
Pearl also enjoys the particular mechanism of the harpsichord. While piano keys operate hammers which strike strings, harpsichord keys are attached to “little quills, made out of bird feathers,” called plectra, which pluck at the string (although the synthetic delrin largely replaced bird quills in new harpsichords by the 20th century). Because the instrument plucks rather than strikes, a harpsichordist cannot change the dynamic, or volume, of each note by pressing the key harder or softer.
“There’s a completely different technique involved,” Pearl said. “With piano, you’re throwing a lot of your body weight into it, and you’re striking the key in a controlled way. With harpsichord, you can feel, when you push down the key, where the pluck happens, the resistance.”
Limited in terms of its dynamic capabilities, the harpsichord focuses instead on harmony and timing. Pearl does a lot of “continuo playing,” a Baroque practice that involves a moving bassline, performed by a cello or another low instrument, supplemented by harmony, sometimes improvised, from one or more other instruments. “Not only do you have this kind of flexibility of freedom, but you’re improvising based on chords,” Pearl said.
This practice is entirely based around how different notes interact with each other over time. Pearl describes this interaction as the “root of the expressive nature of baroque music.” While harmony and timing remain important features of instrumental music to this day, technological developments have allowed composers to make their music powerful in other ways, and so few types of music are as focused on these shifts between chords. “That sort of thing appeals to me a lot,” Pearl added.
Pearl said that he inevitably meets people who hate the harpsichord. “It kind of stuns me, but if you listen to recordings of the harpsichord from the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s, it sounds terrible. The instruments don’t sound good, they sound kind of metallic,” he said.
But over time, through research and practice, musicians like Pearl have rediscovered the capabilities of the harpsichord.
“The harpsichord is actually an incredibly expressive instrument,” he said. “I want people to understand how expressive it can actually be, how warm and rich the sound of it can be.”
Adam Pearl will perform in Brandi Recital Hall on Saturday, Feb. 24.