Harpsichordist Sera Son spanned centuries of music last Sunday. Playing before a standing-room-only audience at Russell House, Son masterfully performed a collection of harpsichord pieces whose composers ranged from 18th-century composer Johann Sebastian Bach to the University’s own Neely Bruce.
Son, the music director of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Garland, Texas and a Masters of Music student at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, played all six of the concert’s pieces with equal parts passion and precision. Rapt audience members sat or stood stock still as they absorbed the sounds of Son’s harpsichord, which were by turns elegant, plaintive, and frantic. Bruce, a professor of Music, whose “Nine Variations on an Original Theme for Harpsichord” was among the performed pieces, described the performance with particular enthusiasm.
“I thought it was very fine,” Bruce said after the concert. “It’s nice to hear my own piece as well. She plays very beautifully. She has a freedom in her playing.”
This freedom characterized both the nature of Son’s individual performances and the pieces she chose to perform. Dressed in a flowing purple skirt and velvety black blouse with small diamonds running down the center, her hair gracefully swept back in a bun, Son exuded refinement and technical polish throughout the performance. Her head swayed gently back and forth as she performed the opening piece, “Five Pieces in G minor: Prelude-Courante-Sarabande-Chaconne-Passacaille” by the 17th-century composer Louis Couperin: Subtle physical gestures complimented both the music’s stately formality and its undercurrent of melancholy.
When performing newer pieces, however, Son embraced often jarring changes in tone and tempo. “Sonatina II for Harpsichord Solo,” by 20th-century Japanese composer Asiko Hirabayashi, swung from poignant moments of measured, graceful high notes to frenzied, ominous rumblings, often with little pause in between.
Such seemingly chaotic vacillations were given a disarming physicality at one point, when Son’s music stand unexpectedly fell mid-note. Friend and musical assistant Annie Nun quickly held up the sheet music with one hand as she re-configured the stand with the other. Son continued playing as if nothing had occurred, translating difficult musical transitions with a masterful ease that left an unexpected impression on audience members.
“I gained a new appreciation for the instrument,” said Joanna Dicke ’10. “I was impressed by the emotional impact she was able to get out of the instrument.”
The assortment of pieces Son chose to perform, besides showcasing her own musical dexterity, highlighted the range of sounds the harpsichord can produce. As an instrument, the harpsichord resembles a larger keyboard and produces sound by plucking (instead of striking) the strings contained within its frame. Ronald Ebrecht, the University organist who introduced Son, remarked afterward how skillful one must be in order to produce varied sounds from the instrument.
“To make [the harpsichord] have a fluid sound is remarkable,” Ebrecht said.
Pieces like the aforementioned works by Bruce and Hirabayashi melded seamlessly with classical and baroque composers like Jean-Philippe Rameau and Domenico Scarlatti: The often restrained and halting rhythms of the earlier works recognized and altered within the later works. Rameau’s “Gavotte in A minor with Variations” and Scarlatti’s “Sonata in B minor K. 87” and “Sonata in D major K. 119” rounded out the program.
At least one audience member appreciated the care Son took in performing one of the performance’s most well known pieces: Bach’s “1st Prelude for Book I in C,” which Son played as an encore after a round of hearty applause.
“It was nice she ended with the ‘1st Prelude,’” said Joe Newman ’09. “It can be played very mechanically, but she played it very expressively.”
Bruce attributed the popularity of the concert, co-sponsored by Russell House and the Center for the Arts, not only to Son’s musical skill and variety, but also to a public desire for more exposure to this often-little-seen instrument.
“I didn’t know it would be this many people, but I’m not surprised,” Bruce said after the performance. “We don’t have enough harpsichord concerts here.”
The “Music at the Russell House” concert series continues on Feb. 25 at 3 p.m. with Fred Simmons, a University private lessons teacher at Wesleyan, performing.