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Artist Interview: Jean Rondeau

By Erik Petersons on February 11, 2019
Jean Rondeau

Jean Rondeau traces his career back to a beginning that he describes as “an endless passion for music, for voices, for discovery, for people, for life.” Everything he plays on the harpsichord is a realization of these things—combined over decades of his immersion in this instrument that is now undergoing a small revival (in no small part to his advocacy). We caught up with Jean recently to discuss his program and his path to the harpsichord.

Erik Petersons: Your program with PCMS on March 1 features works by Scarlatti and J. S. Bach. How was this program formed? Are there any connections between the works that the audience can listen for?

Jean Rondeau: To create a program is to create a form—a musical form. It’s to think about how we could tell a story and gently take the audience by an invisible hand. It’s also about imagination and projection. When I create a program, I need to have a global vision of the direction of a very specific musical moment. The Italian taste of the program has been orientated by Bach’s Italian Concerto. This is one of the highlights of the program. Scarlatti, like Bach, was also inspired by the Italian taste through his studies in Napoli, Firenze, and Venice before going to Portugal and Spain. This backdrop provides the common inspiration in the pieces I chose for the program.

EP: What drew you to the harpsichord and who have been your inspirations as an artist? Is the harpsichord making a comeback?

JR: I discovered the harpsichord when I was 5. It’s a precise memory in my life. I remember having a direct contact with the sound of this instrument through the radio. I didn’t know what was played nor who was playing, and perhaps not even the name of the instrument I was listening to at this very moment. But I remember being struck by this very delicate sound. This love could not be explained…it’s irrational.

The harpsichord has a very unique history. First of all, it’s an instrument with a huge repertoire with prolific centuries (16-18th centuries) and also with repertoire in the 20th century. But it’s an instrument which disappeared during the majority of the 19th century. It slowly came back to the musical stage at the beginning of 20th century, but it has known very different form and models. It’s an instrument with a huge evolution. During the baroque era, every decade the instrument was changing a lot, and also from one country to another, from one harpsichord maker to another. And now, from the middle of 20th century, the harpsichord maker perpetuates this tradition. And we could say that from that period to now the harpsichord is making a comeback for sure!

EP: Your training included studies in organ, piano, jazz, improvisation, and conducting. How have these influenced your playing on the harpsichord?

JR: Music is a whole world and most of all an infinite search. The more you dig inside the musical score, the more doubts you will bring to light. To go forward in craft, and use those doubts as a spring: a rain of questions. It’s like philosophy! You cannot be in truth while doing philosophy as you cannot perceive the musical mystery and doing music in the same time. Whatever is your instrument or your specialization, to take this path of doubts and mystery, I think it’s necessary to have different perspectives on the musical object, different angles—fundamental edges—to try to touch a bountiful, complete insight into musical phrases. Today, I realize how important it was, and still is, for my musical education to work on improvisation, on composition, and interpretation.

EP: What characteristics or potential does the harpsichord have that you hope to introduce our audience to?

JR: Sensitivity. Sensitivity. Sensitivity. But also a very delicate expressivity, a undeniable warmness and a joyful and lively presence!

Jean Rondeau performs on Friday, March 1, at 7:30 pm at the American Philosophical Society. For tickets and information, visit the concert page. For more information about Jean Rondeau, visit his website.