Goldberg Variations captivate listeners

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Monday, February 23, 2009

As Senior Lecturer in Music Frederick Jodry performed the Goldberg Variations in a Friday evening concert, listeners were aurally transported to the princely courts of eighteenth-century Germany. Audience members nearly filled Grant Recital Hall to hear this landmark of Baroque counterpoint performed on the harpsichord.

Johann Sebastian Bach is said to have composed the variations in 1741 for Count Keyserlingk. The count had his court musician, Johann Goldberg, play the piece to treat his insomnia. Appropriately, Jodry joked in his introductory remarks that it would be understandable if some audience members fell asleep during the recital.

Jodry described the Goldberg Variations as a great journey “from the melodic to the virtuossic.” The work begins with a delicate aria that certainly exerts a calming effect. The aria is followed by 30 variations, which share a common base line. Alternately buoyant, mournful and stately, they are united by Bach’s mastery of counterpoint — the juxtaposition of melodies for harmonic effect. Finally, the aria is played again, bringing the piece full circle.

Jodry performed the recital on a harpsichord with two manuals, or keyboards. Whereas a piano produces sound by hitting strings with hammers, a harpsichord plucks its strings, producing a more metallic, twangy and bright tone. Since the player cannot vary the instrument’s loudness by exerting more pressure on the keys, he or she must provide expression in subtler ways. Though Jodry was rhythmically precise, he expertly varied the tempo to create drama in the music.

Jodry’s skill was especially evident in the 12 movements that are meant for two voices, or, in musical terms, “a 2 clav.” With his left hand on the upper keyboard and his right hand on the lower one, Jodry was essentially playing a duet by himself. In the 14th variation, for example, his two hands engaged in a call-and-response exchange, and his arms crossed every so often.

Other memorable variations included number 10, the work’s sole fugue, and number 25, which Jodry played with a wistful-sounding lute voice.

Trained at the New England Conservatory, Jodry is a specialist in early music. At Brown, he serves as director of choral activities and teaches music history, conducting and harpsichord performance. He is also music director at First Unitarian Church, located on Benevolent Street. Proceeds from the recital went to the Brown University Chorus, which will travel to Prague and Vienna in June.