March 20, 2017 9:30AM
When the decision was made to add a harpsichord to the Steinway pianos already in use in the Bicknell Family Center for the Arts, Susan Marchant did some research. She eventually settled on Craig Tomlinson, a harpsichord builder in Vancouver, British Columbia, to provide an instrument that could match the high standards the space required.
“The choice of Craig Tomlinson followed a good deal of research into today’s builders,” said Marchant, chair of Pittsburg State University’s Department of Music. “That included conversations with colleagues and mentors across the country. It was also possible to hear his instruments in several recordings, which was very helpful.”
The public had an opportunity to hear the harpsichord that Tomlinson built in a free concert on Thursday, March 30, in the Bicknell Center’s Linda & Lee Scott Performance Hall.
“This was the first concert in which the university’s new Tomlinson harpsichord was used extensively,” Marchant said. “It demonstrated the ways in which the instrument will make a musical contribution to both solo and chamber music repertoire.”
Performers in the inaugural concert included PSU faculty members, students and guests who presented music by Bach, Vivaldi, Biber, Couperin and others.
One special number on the program was J.S. Bach’s Concerto for Three Harpsichords and Strings, BWV 1064. For that piece, the Tomlinson harpsichord was joined by two other double-manual concert harpsichords. Harpsichordists Marchant, Devon Turner and Peter Frost collaborated with a string ensemble composed of Raul Munguia, Emilia Cardenas, Tyler Kuder and Hyerim Mapp on the concerto.
Although he wasn't able be here for the concert, Craig Tomlinson said his heart was in Pittsburg that evening.
“It’s always exciting for me to anticipate the inaugural concert for one of my ‘new’ instruments,” Tomlinson said. “I wish I had been there to see it in its new home and to hear the instrument’s progress as its sound develops over time.”
Marchant described the new harpsichord as a “full, two-keyboard harpsichord typical of the French approach to building that represents the pinnacle of harpsichord design in the 18th century.” Its construction is based on an instrument crafted by Joannes Goermans in 1764 and rebuilt by Pascal Taskin in 1784 that is now in the Russell Collection in Edinburgh, Scotland.
“It is a stunning instrument, both visually and acoustically,” Marchant said.
Tomlinson said he spent considerable time with the Goermans harpsichord in the 1980s.
“While touring collections in Europe, I spent several months with the original instrument at a collection in Edinburgh, Scotland,” Tomlinson said. “At that time I was pretty much able to take the original instrument apart to measure, photograph and gather all of the necessary information that I use today.”
The actual construction of the harpsichord took upwards of 1,200 hours. Tomlinson, who does all of the construction, said he carefully selects the materials for each instrument he builds. That’s especially true of the tone-woods, which he gets from a supplier in Germany and cures in his shop for a decade before using them.
Tomlinson also does much of the elaborate decoration on the harpsichords he builds. He said his mother, Olga, is responsible for the soundboard painting on all of his instruments. In the case of PSU’s new instrument, the soundboard is decorated with a simple wreath of flowers painted around the soundboard's “rose.”
The finished product is an instrument that just gets better with time.
“The sound of the original instrument (the Goermans harpsichord in Scotland) has grown and matured over the years to become one of the very best surviving instruments from that period and the patina of the decoration is still stunning,” Tomlinson said.
The new harpsichord at the Bicknell Center was purchased with funds donated by the Steinway Society, which last year funded the purchase of two Steinway pianos for the center.
The new harpsichord features a double keyboard "typical of the French approach to building that represents the pinnacle of harpsichord design in the 18th century." (Below)
Builder Craig Tomlinson uses select woods to build harpsichords in his Vancouver shop. (Below)
Tomlinson does much of the elaborate decoration on the harpsichords he builds. (Below)