CONCERT PREVIEW: Clarion Concerts Presents Baroque Music Guru Anthony Newman and Friends at St. James Place

Organist, harpsichordist and Bach scholar Anthony Newman and friends will perform at Saint James Place on Saturday November 5th. Image reproduced with the kind permission of the artist.

Greater Barrington— If you want to start a heated argument, just walk into any classical music conservatory and announce that Anthony Newman is the “high priest” of the harpsichord. When the heat has died down, go find out for yourself why Time Magazine gave it that title in 1971, listening to Newman’s rendition of Bach’s “Italian Concerto” and other Baroque works at St. James Place on Saturdays November 5 at 3 p.m.

Anthony Newman first sparked widespread controversy when he made his Carnegie Hall debut at the age of 26 with performances of Bach’s organ pieces on the pedal harpsichord. The New York Times wrote of how Newman’s “thumping beats and tremendous technical mastery” elicited “the kind of clamor prompted by extraordinary artistry.”

That was all Clive Davis needed to hear. Having never seen Newman perform, the Columbia Records executive known for discovering the likes of Bruce Sprinsteen and Whitney Houston signed Mr. Newman on the spot. It didn’t hurt that Newman sported wire-rimmed glasses, kept his hair long, and practiced Zen meditation. It was “the summer of love”, 1967.

Columbia positioned Newman in the market as a hip, classical music version of rock keyboard virtuosos like Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman. The young hippie harpsichordist from Los Angeles, Davis thought, would bring rewards to stuffy, geriatric classical music snobs (and, at least commercially, Newman did the job).

Even Rolling Stone Magazine joined the Newman movement, writing, “Music is a journey. As if it were pulling strands of your mind out of their corners and binding them into loops and knots. And Newman was well feted in pop-oriented Keyboard magazine (twice Harpsichordist of the Year and once Classical Keyboardist of the Year).

And he sold a lot of records.

Traditionalists were less pleased with Newman. His detractors say he takes too many liberties with tempo, rhythm and ornamentation. But it’s essential to keep in mind that Newman’s sins against tradition are committed in your name. It is frowned upon by the classical music intellect to save you, the listener, from what one reviewer called “the boredom of misguided respect.” He wants you to have as much fun listening as he has playing.

You’ve probably found yourself listening to a piece of classical music and at some point thought to yourself, “Where am I? Is this the whatchamacallit section? That makes you a member of Anthony Newman’s target audience. That’s because it not only aims to please you with inherently entertaining baroque music, but also to provide periodic clues about the structure of a given piece. (Time and time again I find reviews using language that essentially describes Newman’s penchant for elucidating structure.) He wants you to know where you stand.

The Dallas Morning News called Newman’s performances “new and exciting”. Gazeta Krakowska called them “lovely”. The Washington Post said Newman had a “distinctive and slightly iconoclastic personality”. But scholars of the more traditional Baroque say, in essence, one man’s excitement is another man’s panic attack. Newman’s leading critic, Frederick Neumann, warns that Newman shows signs of “eccentricity”.

On November 5, you will have the last word on all of this.

As you can imagine, Newman has amassed quite a few musician friends over half a century of performing, composing, conducting and teaching. And he brings four with him to St. James Place on Saturday. They are:

Lun Li — violin

Risa Hokamura — violin

Jonathan Swensen — cello

Melissa Reardon — viola

You will be well rewarded by reading their biography. Ms. Reardon is a member of the famous Borromeo Quartet. The other three musicians are represented by young concert artists, and when you hear them play, you will agree that they are all rising stars.

Here is Saturday’s schedule:

  • Bach Italian Concerto (Anthony Newman)
  • Mozart Hoffmeister Quartet in D major K 499 (the quartet)
  • Haydn Emperor Variations Opus 76, Number 3 (The Quartet)
  • Haydn Harpsichord Concerto in D Major-Hoboken 18:11 (the quartet with Anthony Newman)

Whenever we talk about “historically informed” performance practices, it’s always good to ask, “Which version of history?” That seems to be the question Anthony Newman has asked himself all his life.

See Baroque scholar Anthony Newman and Friends at St. James Place on Saturday, Nov. 5 at 3 p.m. Ticket information here.

About Shirley A. Tamayo

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