"Harpsichord was the electric guitar of the 17th century"

Harpsichord was the electric guitar of the 17th century
By TERESA SANTOSKI Staff Writer, Encore Buzz in The Nashua Telegraph

Teenage rebellion never really goes away – it just manifests itself differently as we grow older.

Simply ask Paul Cienniwa, who played thrash guitar with a punk band during his teen years and has since settled down with a perhaps even more unconventional instrument: the harpsichord.

Cienniwa will give a free concert at 4 p.m. Sunday at the Amherst Town Library at 14 Main St.

For more information, visit www.amherst.lib.nh.us or call 673-2288. To hear Cienniwa’s music, visit www.paulcienniwa.com.

“I have a consistent rebellious streak,” said Cienniwa, a resident of Fall River, Mass. “If I were really traditional, I’d be playing the piano.”

Classical music and punk are similar, he explained, in that both are niches within the music world. Historically considered mainstream, classical music has become even more of a niche in recent years.

“It’s harder to find today, radio and live performances of classical music, than it is to find anything else,” Cienniwa said.

And the harpsichord?

“The harpsichord is a niche within that niche,” he said, describing the instrument as being on the fringes of the classical music scene.

Although Cienniwa started piano lessons when he was 6, it wasn’t until his high school years, when he was preparing to go to college to study music, that he began to take a more active interest in classical music.

At that time, Cienniwa would often blast his favorite rock ’n’ roll and punk songs while he was driving. It wasn’t long before his studies brought an even more eclectic playlist to his car’s sound system.

“To be even more rebellious, why not blast Wagner?” he said.

His rebellion took a different turn when, two years into his college piano program, he laid hands on a harpsichord for the first time.

“I just loved the sound and the feel of the instrument,” Cienniwa said, adding that in terms of the quality of its sound, the harpsichord has some similarity to the electric guitar.

The discovery of the harpsichord led to a difficult period, he recalled. He was experiencing a measure of success with the piano and didn’t want to fully devote himself to the harpsichord.

“If you really want to do it well, it’s hard to do both at the same time,” he said.

A decision had to be made, and Cienniwa chose to take the road less traveled.

“That was the break with the piano, and I’ve never looked back,” he said.

Cienniwa does still play the piano from time to time, as well as the pipe organ. Both instruments are sometimes necessary in his roles as the music director of First Church in Boston and chorus master for the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra, among numerous other musical activities.

The harpsichord is his main instrument, however.

The program for his library concert will feature “the three greatest composers born in 1685,” Cienniwa said – Bach, Handel and Domenico Scarlatti, who is best known for his 555 keyboard sonatas.

Although the composers are all from the same era, “There’s a whole lot of variety in the program,” Cienniwa said. “The only similarity is that they’re all being played on the same instrument.”

Cienniwa’s concerts often include him taking the harpsichord apart and explaining the inner workings of the instrument at the request of the audience.

“Most people don’t really know how they work,” he said. “Unlike a piano, the strings are plucked.”

Cienniwa hopes people will attend the concert even if they’re unsure as to whether they like the harpsichord.

Because it’s an unfamiliar instrument, he said, people will hear the harpsichord once and assume that’s how it’s supposed to sound. If they find the sound unappealing, they might not take into account that they may have heard a subpar performance or a poor-quality harpsichord.

“To diminish it based on one bad experience, or no experience at all, would be unfortunate,” Cienniwa said. “It’s so rare today that people can hear this music live.”

His inner rebel once again reared its head as he joked, “Stop being so conservative and come have a good time.”

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