Harpsichordist Kroll entertains with varied, personal program

Lilting, ornamented melodies emitting from a gleaming red and gold harpsichord, played by a jovial and sensitive keyboardist – the only thing missing from Saturday’s harpsichord concert featuring 18th century French music were the powdered wigs. The concert, a part of the Clark Art Institute’s symposium entitled “Visions of the Stage: Theater, Art, and Performance in France, 1600-1800,” highlighted the talents of renowned harpsichordist Mark Kroll and evoked the frivolity and gaiety of Versailles. Kroll selected pieces that painted specific characters and narratives and named the concert “Portraits in Music,” highlighting the connections between art, music and theater of the time period.

Kroll himself is quite the character, and his combination of facile playing and love for the music transformed potentially boring music into something charming and witty. When he first walked on stage, his professorial gray suit and tie seemed at odds with the colorful instrument he played. However, his Santa Claus-like smile and apparent joy for performing won over the receptive audience. Along with his extensive accomplishments as a performer, Kroll has also done scholarly work, most recently with a book on the composer Johann Hummel, Johann Nepomuk Hummel: A Musician’s Life and World. Not only did he provide pages of program notes, Kroll added a personal feel to the concert by speaking directly to the audience and providing his own take on several of the pieces.

The majority of the program consisted of suites, called “ordres,” by François Couperin, whom Kroll called the greatest Baroque composer for the harpsichord. Each ordre tells a story and creates a cast of characters. While Kroll infused each piece with personality and vigor, the music itself is limited in scope. Like the frothy artwork of Watteau and Fragonard of that period, the content of the music does not challenge the listener, but rather aims to create a pleasant diversion.

The music of the second half took a decidedly different turn. Kroll performed selections from another ordre by Couperin, but the music communicated a different vibe from those of the first half; as Kroll put it, Couperin’s music relayed the message that “all was not right in Versailles.” The minor mode and almost nostalgic melodies indicated Couperin’s sense that the aristocracy’s way of life would not last forever.

After Kroll completed his ode to Couperin, he filled out his survey of eighteenth-century French music with three selections from Jean-Philippe Rameau and two from Claude Balbastre. These two composers came a generation after Couperin, and their music differs from that of Couperin in its different techniques and Italian influence. While Couperin’s music features simple melodies with complicated ornamentation, Rameau and Balbastre introduced more complex, moving-note melodies, flashy scales and arpeggios and crossing over of the hands.

Unlike Couperin’s restrained style, Rameau and Balbastre aimed to create more drama by showing off the virtuosity of the keyboardist. Kroll relished in these over-the-top riffs just as much as he did in the simpler tunes of Couperin. His cheerful smiles and rhythmic head bobs throughout indicated his enthusiasm for the music. Kroll’s command of the instrument, deriving from his sensitivity to the subtlest changes in character and tone of the music, enabled him to link together aspects of art, theater and music to deliver a closer look at 18th century France through the arts.