By Jane Lanctot
“Put on your eighteenth-century ears.”
Thus spake Gregory Biss, virtuoso pianist, venerated composer, and titan of the Downeast artistic community, at the start of his yearly harpsichord concert on Sunday, February 26th at the EAC. An eager crowd braved the snowstorm and buzzed with excitement. Past harpsichord presentations exposed audiences to a broad spectrum of repertoire from the Elizabethans all the way to Phillip Glass. This year, listeners experienced a deep dive into one seminal work: the Partita in B flat by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Before performing the six-movement Partita, Mr Biss touched on the subject of sound inflation—how orchestras and musical instruments have gotten bigger and louder over the centuries. He explained the harpsichord action, in which each note has a mechanism which plucks the string going up but slides over it on the way down. Unlike the piano, the notes are the same volume regardless of how hard you play the keys.

Mr Biss also composed a charming introduction to polyphonic writing (having two or more independent melodies that harmonize together), using the tune “Happy Birthday” as a starting point, adding more and more voices and textures—to prepare everyone for the main event.
The Partita in B Flat consists of a Prelude and five dance movements. He played little excerpts from each, focusing on an inner voice, or pointing out that the musical writing is almost a form of abstract story-telling: a canvas upon which listeners can project their own imagination as the different voices seem to engage in “conversations”.

Armed with these listening tools, the audience sat spellbound during the actual performance of the work. The opening movements were cheerful and celebratory; then introspective in the Sarabande and ecstatic in the final Gigue, which showcased the acrobatic skill with which Mr Biss performed rapid hand-crossings between the bass and treble.

During the ensuing question-and-answer period, Gregory Biss pointed out that the metronome (a device that produces a steady pulse to help musicians play in time) was not invented during Bach’s lifetime (1685 – 1750), but that he had about 80 students who passed on an oral tradition of the composer’s intentions of how fast his pieces should be played. In fact, Biss ended by underscoring the importance of adhering to what direction the composer did leave; and quoted Polish harpsichordist Wanda Landowska’s famous remark “You play Bach your way, and I’ll play him his way.”

Sunday Afternoons at the Arts Center programs are held in Eastport Arts Center’s cozy downstairs Washington Street Gallery, amidst rotating exhibitions. Admission is by voluntary donation; proceeds are shared equally between the presenters and EAC constituent group The Concert Series, which offers year-round programming run by volunteers. No one is turned away for lack of funds.
The complete Sunday series schedule and more posts about upcoming and past programs may be found here: https://eastportartscenter.org/constituent-groups/the-concert-series/.