Greensboro Church Celebrates Early Music

photo by Hal Gray
The Greensboro United Church of Christ Early Music Consort performed on September 25, in Greensboro United Church of Christ. Consort members were (left to right) Tom Anastasio (viola da gamba). Hal Parker (harpsichord), Sonia Dunbar and Gina Jenkins (recorders)

by Hal Gray

GREENSBORO – The Early Music Consort of the Greensboro United Church of Christ (GUCC) performs during Sunday services at 10 a.m., on the last Sunday of every month. Early music as performed at GUCC consists primarily of music of the Renaissance (1400-1600) and the Baroque (1600-1750). The four musicians and their instruments were Hal Parker (harpsichord), Tom Anastasio (viola da gamba), and Gina Jenkins and Sonia Dunbar (recorders). These musicians and their instruments provide a unique sound harking back to the beginning of Western classical music.

The harpsichord has a key board similar to a piano, but whereas with a piano the strings are struck by “hammers” allowing for a range of dynamics (soft as well as loud tones), harpsichord strings are plucked as with a harp, which limits dynamics. The harpsichordist uses keyboard techniques to provide a sense of dynamics. Harpsichord technique is very similar to organ technique, and organists find it much easier to switch to harpsichord than pianists do. The harpsichord was widely used in Renaissance and Baroque music, but with development of the piano in the 1700s, there were fewer performances using the harpsichord, although it has made a resurgence in the 20th century. GUCC’s instrument is a copy of Flemish harpsichords which are noted for their bright sound and fit well in the excellent acoustics of the GUCC sanctuary.

The viola da gamba, also called a “viol” or “gamba,” is a member of the viol family and in its bass version superficially resembles a cello, which is a member of the violin family. The viol family is different in many technical respects from the violin family, which, being louder became more popular around the end of the 1600s. The cello has an end pin which rests on the floor to support its weight, whereas the viola da gamba is held off the floor between the legs, thus giving its name translated from the Italian “viol for the leg.” The bass viol usually plays a supporting role in GUCC services, sustaining the notes of the harpsichord: the “continuo” part.

The recorder is a form of flute, in the family of woodwind musical instruments. Sound is produced by blowing over a built-in knife-edge. Recorders were traditionally made of wood or ivory. Modern professional instruments are almost always of wood, while student recorders are commonly of molded plastic. First documented in Europe in the Middle Ages, the recorder continued to enjoy wide popularity in the Renaissance and Baroque periods, but was little used in the subsequent Classical and Romantic periods. It was revived in the 20th century and became a popular amateur and educational instrument. Recorders are made to reflect various vocal ranges, with most common sizes today being soprano, alto, tenor and bass. Generally, altos are played in GUCC services, but soprano and tenor recorders are played as well.

Dunbar related a brief history of the GUCC Consort, how Jenkins on her recorder began accompanying Parker on the piano and they realized how difficult it was to balance the two instruments. Then one day when Anastasio joined the two in practice, Parker commented how much better they would sound with a harpsichord. This led eventually to GUCC’s purchase of a harpsichord. Dunbar had learned to play the recorder years earlier from Bronwyn Potter, GUCC’s previous organist, who had played recorder with Jane White, Jenkins’ mother. Dunbar had gone on for a Bachelor’s degree in pre-classical instrumental music and joined the Consort in December 2014, a year after the harpsichord’s purchase, when she realized how comparable in ability the four musicians were.