An Interview with Jean Rondeau

By · Photography © Katie Baillot · Date 11/30/2017

While this might not be the moment that all of us have been waiting for, it’s certainly titillating to catalogue another casualty report in the Harpsichord Wars. In March, Mahan Esfahani hurled a set of observations (some say accusations) against the mainstream harpsichord world, among them shortsightedness, conservatism, as well as a pervasive fear of new music and modern instruments.

Mahan Esfahani, a harpsichordist with a big mouth, spoke in turn about Rondeau, a harpsichordist with big hair. Esfahani did not mention him by name, but said, “Having funky hair or playing a little bit of jazz doesn’t make you iconoclastic if your harpsichord playing is perfectly orthodox.” Considering Rondeau’s reputation for dabbling in jazz and free improvisation, as well as his shabby-chic aesthetic, it was unlikely Esfahani was referring to anybody else.

Yet in the various responses to Esfahani’s comments about Rondeau or the rest of the harpsichord world, there were few retorts that actually disproved them or picked them apart. So, rather than beat around the bush, I decided to see if there was any weight to the claims made against Rondeau.

Rondeau has garnered a reputation for breaking boundaries at the harpsichord. He won the Bruges International Harpsichord Competition in 2012, at age 21. He has exceptional technical ability at the instrument—a fact that should not be underestimated, as the harpsichord has a notorious reputation as a difficult instrument to play musically, with any discernible element of expression. His recordings of Bach are (arguably) gorgeous, and his performances of music from 18th century France move at lightning speed with impossible ease. But the question remains whether this is his only discernable departure from the mainstream harpsichord world.

His career, it’s safe to say, is multifaceted. In 2016, he was approached by director Christian Schwochow to compose music for “Paula,” a film about the life of painter Paula Modersohn Becker. “At first, I didn’t want to do it as I thought I wouldn’t have time,” he told me in a recent phone interview. “Also, I had never done anything like that before.” Rondeau composed just over 20 minutes of music for the emotionally reticent film. He also included an arrangement of Bach’s organ chorale “Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ” as the viewer witnesses Paula’s final moments. I asked him if the arrangement had personal significance to him, or spoke to his relationship with Bach. “Not really,” he answered. “I really wanted to use some music of Fauré originally, as it would have been appropriate for the time period in which the film was set. But we had trouble getting the rights for Fauré’s music, and so I chose this piece by Bach.” (Fauré’s music has been in the public domain since 1994.) Rondeau couldn’t tell me which of Fauré’s pieces he’d considered for the end of the film, but when I asked him why he chose the Bach work, he said, “Well, it’s a piece about life and death, joy and sadness. It was fitting for a death scene.”

There are fascinating parallels between improvisation in early music and in jazz—both offer vivid expressive freedom in exchange for the mastery of sets of elaborate rules. Rondeau is recognizable for his work in both fields. “Both disciplines have so much to them, that it’s hard to define exactly what they are except under the category of guided improvisation,” he said. He added that the styles both foster unknown ideas and healthy “doubts” about the interpretation of music. Despite this, he told me that improvisation has little role in his approach to harpsichord repertoire with the exception of playing over basso continuo.

Rondeau’s jazz album with his ensemble Note Forget is, to my ears, quite conservative. I asked him if he thought his harpsichord background could help him add new things to jazz, a genre crowded with viscerally exciting experimenters. “I guess I don’t think of harpsichord repertoire and the instrument that way,” he answered. “Harpsichord repertoire is about unlocking a past language and figuring out how things were done back then, and not so much about finding something new.”

Rondeau’s website shows him in a modern light; one large photo has him posing in front of what looks like a work of contemporary art. Does he disdain what some might see as the stuffy associations of the early music world? “In terms of how I am marketed and presented in the media, perhaps it’s best to ask someone else,” he told me. “I don’t really think in those terms. The term historical performance and words like it are just labels. I think about music and honesty to the past. I try to be juste.”

He uses this term, literally “just” or “righteous,” to reflect a thorough, considered approach to performing music from the past. “I only play on beautiful instruments,” he said, adding, “only instruments from the 17th and 18th centuries or historical reconstructions.” This is not an uncommon view among harpsichordists, though it is perhaps more surprising for a performer known for his openness to other forms of music besides the baroque. “It’s true that the harpsichord was revived in the 19th century,” he told me, “but it was not in the correct form.” The underlying paradox of our conversation found consummation as he suggested 19th and early 20th century harpsichords to be “completely new, more like pianos…ahistorical.”

When I asked Rondeau if he played contemporary music, he enthusiastically informed me that he had done two pieces by Ligeti, a concerto by Francis Poulenc and a concerto by Bohuslav Martinů. (The youngest of whom, Ligeti, was laid to rest over a decade ago.) Would he make an exception to his rule of only playing period instruments when it came to Poulenc or Martinů? “No,” he said, “because the sound is not correct.” But are these instruments loud enough for modern repertoire? “It is easier just to amplify the harpsichord,” he said. “It’s too complicated to deal with matters of balance. It interferes with the music.” Hard-pressed to describe what makes historically inspired harpsichords better than the harpsichords built in the early 20th century, to told me that it’s about a “sound” that was simply “better.” You might detect a trace of irony that while he wouldn’t play Bach on a modern instrument, he’d happily amplify Martinů on a historical instrument. But, he reassured me, “It’s very complicated.”

“I really love playing contemporary music and I intend to make it part of my career,” Rondeau went on. “It’s essential that the instrument moves forward.” When asked if he played any music by living composers, he said, “Yes, I write my own music sometimes.” I asked him what other repertoire from the 20th and 21st century he’s interested in. “I don’t really know of any. I’m usually disappointed when I hear anything modern for the harpsichord,” Rondeau said. When asked if there are any living composers he would love to have write for the instrument, he said “Not really.” There was a pause, and he continued, “Maybe I’m not the best person to ask about this. I’m sure there are others who know more about it. But writing for the harpsichord takes someone who can really get inside the sound of the instrument in order to move it forward. This is why I think I ought to write my own concerto, rather than ask someone else.”

I began to wonder whether Rondeau’s strict views about what’s right were more a matter of feeling than a matter of intellectual conviction. That’s an artist’s prerogative, of course. He even admitted that these are his own views, even stating outright that hopes that there are people who will disagree with him. Yet as a harpsichordist, I felt strange that he was trying to convince me that playing the harpsichord properly wasn’t a matter of history, but instead what he frequently referred to as juste. “Let me see if I can find a word in English. I don’t think I will,” he said. I could hear him typing on his computer to try and find a translation. I asked him if “proper” or “correct” would work for the interview. He said, “No. We should use the word juste. There’s no equivalent in another language.” ¶