Bach and the Bee Gees are not often mentioned in the same sentence, much less played on the same instrument -- especially one with such strong early-music associations as the harpsichord. But harpsichord enthusiasts who gathered this week in Washington for a workshop are going beyond baroque in the classes and performances that fill their schedule.
Jazz harpsichordist Don Angle of Salem, Mass., gives a private recital tonight in Georgetown for the workshop participants. His latest CD, "Yes Indeed!," includes songs such as "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah," "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" and the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive." It's unconventional harpsichord fare, perhaps, although Angle, 62, says that arranging popular music for the instrument is something that baroque musicians would have done.
"This is having fun with something you already know," says Angle, who will also teach a master class tomorrow. "There's a stigma that if it's on the harpsichord, it must sound old. That's not true."
The workshop is sponsored by Southern Methodist University in Dallas and organized by Larry Palmer, a professor of harpsichord and organ who's taught at the university since 1970. This is the 16th year of the week-long summer event, designed for musicians at varying skill levels who want to supplement their training and meet others who share their passion for the harpsichord, a forerunner of the piano. Its strings are plucked when its keys are pressed instead of being struck with a hammer mechanism, as with a piano.
"I love harpsichord -- it's amazing," says Alejandra Lopera, 30, a professional musician from Arequipa, Peru, whose primary instrument is the recorder. "I'd be playing the harpsichord if I discovered it first," she adds. "The sound is just wonderful."
This year's workshop -- the first one held in Washington -- has drawn 14 participants; it's also one of several to include an organ component. Palmer explains that harpsichord and organ, being the dominant baroque keyboard instruments, share so much in terms of literature and technique that they are often studied together.
Palmer, 66, was an organ major at Oberlin in the 1950s and was first exposed to the harpsichord when he spent his junior year abroad in Austria. "I love the literature for the instrument," he says. "Bach is my favorite composer. . . . The longer I play the music, the more passionate I become. I can't imagine living my life without it."
But Palmer does not dwell solely on Bach and his baroque peers, such as Scarlatti and Couperin. During a harpsichord recital Monday at Strand on Volta gallery, he also surveyed early-to-mid-20th-century composers, who contributed to the revival of the instrument.
Palmer also commissions new harpsichord compositions for other performances he gives. Contemporary works, he says, are "a breath of fresh air. You don't want an all-Scarlatti or all-Couperin program. You can get very tired of Scarlatti."
After the recital, workshop participants had a chance to socialize and talk shop at a reception.
Rolf Goebel, 52, a German studies professor at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, calls harpsichord and organ his "great avocations" and finds training opportunities such as the workshop a better fit than pursuing private lessons. He is focusing more intently on harpsichord after buying his own two months ago.
"I think it's one of the most elegant instruments," Goebel says. "The tone is so light."
Rose Whitmore, 25, a graduate student in music at the University of Oregon, says she hopes to play in a professional baroque ensemble someday. Whitmore says the workshop still provides valuable instruction and an opportunity to network with other harpsichordists that she can't experience otherwise. And is she looking forward to the jazz harpsichord recital?
"Oh my gosh -- yes!" Whitmore says. "I don't think I knew it existed. It should be exciting."