ARTICLE:        Alienor: Patron, Muse and Inspiration

From Sounding Board, August 2017, Issue No. 11,

“No edition of this kind would be complete without acknowledging the Aliénor Composition Competition and the work of its Artistic Director, Elaine Funaro. And so in this the final article, we end as we started: reflecting on the effect of women leaders in the charge of the contemporary harpsichord.

Politician, warrior, Queen of England and France: Eleanor of Aquitaine was one of the most extraordinary and ambitious women of the 12th century, and indeed of the whole of history. Not only did she manage to over-ride many of the rules of medieval patriarchy, but she did so without losing her feminine powers, attaining as much fame as muse and symbol of courtly love as she did as strategic ruler. Her love of the arts still carries resonance and influence today and she is the inspiration behind the naming of the Aliénor Competition – the venerable American institution for the promotion of the contemporary harpsichord whose figurehead is that other mover and shaker, Elaine Funaro. Elaine’s great female role model is seldom far from her thoughts in driving the mission forward: “Eleanor herself was a great patron of the arts, and that’s what ‘we’ do at Aliénor – promoting the harpsichord as an exciting contemporary instrument and encouraging composers to write for it.”

Founded in 1980 under the aegis of SEHKS (the South Eastern Historical Keyboard Society) and now with nine competitions and 700 scores to its name, Aliénor continues to flourish under its original manifesto of encouraging music which is “intentionally accessible” – in compositional styles which I suppose you could say lean towards the more overtly expressive and melodic. Elaine’s passion for this cause manifests itself in taking responsibility for promulgating its outcomes: publishing scores, making them available internationally, and taking up the mantle as performer-exponent including ‘exporting’ Aliénor pieces through concert tours abroad, as well as – and perhaps the most valuable of all for composers – recording them for commercial release: on the Centaur and Arabesque labels, and now on the dedicated Aliénor label.

Aliénor, though by now synonymous with Elaine’s professional profile (“it’s what I do best”), is by no means her only musical concern, and aside from the afore-mentioned recording initiatives, her other releases are mostly musically ‘independent’ from the Aliénor connection. These include Overture to Orpheus, an album dedicated to another subject close to her heart. “It’s all about women as muse, and every piece is written for a woman – and all harpsichordists but one!”

The album’s programme is indeed a fascinating modern testament to the inspiration of the female muse through the medium of the harpsichord: Alexander Voormolen’s Suite, written for Lucie van Dam van Isselt (the painter); Lou Harrison’s Sonatas for Sylvia Marlowe; the Martinů Deux Impromptus for Antoinette Vischer; Daniel Pinkham’s Homage à Wanda for Landowska; Louis Andriessen’s Overture to Orpheus for Annelie de Man; Albert Glinsky’s Sunbow for his wife, Linda Kobler; Michael Nyman’s Tango for Tim for Elisabeth Chojnacka, and Edward McLean’s Sonata No 2, for Elaine herself.

Back to Aliénor again, Elaine muses about composer-performer partnerships and how several of the competition’s winning composers are married to harpsichordists. (That deserves an edition all of its own!) One such composer, Lei Liang, got it right when he said: “I am not surprised that [so many] winning composers are married to harpsichordists – it is the most attractive instrument ever!”

Pamela Nash, Sounding Board

“Elaine Funaro is a virtuoso whose hands turn easily from technical brilliance to lyricism, humour, and pure emotion, bringing the harpsichord to life in all its colors. Her eclectic yet vibrant approach to the repertoire of the instrument proves its relevancy and viability in our own day … The final section of the recording (six works) provides a feast of lush keyboard carols …  Funaro shines in this section, duplicating the lightness, joy, and festive aspect of Christmastide … Her commitment, passion, and energy are palpable.  This is a brilliant CD that surprises the listener with life and love- a real Christmas gift.”

Paul-James Dwyer, Early Music America

“There are no comparable recordings that really match the selections on this disc [Incantations and Inspirations]… I recommend this CD for aficionados of modern music.”

Maria Nockin, Fanfare

 “… The longest work here—and possibly the most ambitious—is Kasper Brookes’s Five Bells (2005), subtitled “A Dramatic Recital for Oboist and Harpsichord on the poem by Kenneth Slessor”. Here the oboist narrates, speechsings, whispers, and otherwise sounds the text of the poem in addition to performing on his instrument, while the harpsichordist comments on and evokes sentiments of his own through a combination of new and repeating ideas. I’ve never heard a piece like it and am excited by the possibilities it shows.”

Haskins, American Record Guide

 “In short, her playing I find quite adept and facile. She clearly knows the style and strives successfully to bring out both the galant aspects of the works and their technical precision … It does stand alongside the more recent recordings …”

Bertil van Boer, Fanfare

           “ … Elaine Funaro, who approaches this music with energy and vigour, making it sound above all fun … I was drawn into the playful, enjoyable sound of the music, and the attention to detail that Elaine Funaro brings to this recording. Having never heard Platti’s works before, I was delighted to discover a little-known composer interpreted with gusto and verve. This fine recording is excellent for its music, performance and instruments.”

Kirk McElhearn, MusicWeb International

“With her [Elaine Funaro’s] stylish music skills and dramatic flair, she entertained and educated the capacity audience in the grand old Smedes Parlor at Saint Mary’s School … You’d never believe the twentieth century personality that the harpsichord can assume when imposing skills are applied.  Suite Española (1999) by Timothy Brown and selections from Timothy Tikker’s Three Bulgarian Dances (1999) provided a spicy conclusion, replete with Latin beats and foot-stomping rhythms.  Many thanks to Elaine Funaro, exceptional artist and theatrical luminary …”

Paul D. Williams, Classical Voice of North Carolina

 “Funaro’s canny ability to read the nuances of Biggs’s playing almost before a key was struck made the first movement, Vivement, incredibly clean.”

Richard Parsons, Classical Voice of North Carolina

 “Two tracks deserve special mention.  The Postlude of Dan Locklair’s dance suite The Breakers Pound will lift you right out of your seat.  The raw energy coming from such a traditionally non-dynamic instrument is incredible.  It has the feel of Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance.  Also, Tom Harris’ Jubilate Deo is extraordinary for the way it builds tension with increasing stacks of harmonies.”

The Wholenote

“I did not know this music by Platti, and Funaro’s persuasive performances have inspired me to go play through all his sonatas. The music is inventive, relatively easy to play, wide-ranging in modulations, and has elegant melodies that sound inevitable while they are in progress. It often seems like proto-Haydn, and it makes good listening.”

B. Lehman, American Record Guide

“Harpsichordist Funaro displays a complete virtuosity over this modern set of pieces. She avoids making it sound either like experimental works or anachronistic throwbacks, instead smoothly and precisely phrasing the often tortuous lines and harmonies. She is light on the keyboard, which seems to dance to her touch, while even in the minimalist pieces she keeps the ever-changing bits from becoming monotonous. These works may have been meant for (and perhaps inspired by) women who were and are the important performers on this instruments, but her playing brings them to life not as historical anomalies, but rather as viable parts of the modern repertory. She gives them life while making them accessible, and thus relevant in our fusionist world.”

Bertil van Boer, Fanfare