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Plucking Her Heartstrings
Renowned harpsichordist shares her love of the instrument
By Jessica Laskey
It might seem strange that an instrument as old as the harpsichord is something musician Faythe Vollrath thinks of as “new in many ways,” but the accomplished harpsichordist, based in Placerville, maintains that there’s a method to the madness.
“It’s still very much ‘create your own adventure’ with the harpsichord,” says Vollrath, who performs as a soloist and chamber musician throughout the U.S. and abroad (she recently performed a concert of new music in Serbia as part of the Belgrade Harpsichord Festival).
“The instrument still doesn’t have a big modern performance history—a lot of the music is still being rediscovered, so you might be playing something from the 17th century that no one’s ever heard. I love that there’s freedom of interpretation.”
That freedom is what first drew Vollrath to the instrument after studying piano performance as an undergrad at Sacramento State University. She started playing the harpsichord just for fun, but she discovered that the flexibility and creativity it provided was a perfect fit for her artistic interests. The harpsichord was most likely invented in the Middle Ages, and all but disappeared from the music scene in the 18th century with the piano’s rise in popularity.
Vollrath went on to receive her doctoral diploma from Stony Brook University in New York under Arthur Haas and her artist diploma from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign under Charlotte Mattax Moersch in harpsichord performance.
She’s since become a beloved local fixture, playing with Capella Antiqua—the choral group based at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament on 11th Street—and the Sacramento Baroque Soloists, as well as a celebrated performer across the country at venues such as MusicSources in Berkeley, Gotham Early Music Scene in New York City and Bruton Parish Church in Colonial Williamsburg.
“What I love best about performing is educating people about this amazing instrument,” the 37-year-old says. “I love when people ask me about the harpsichord after a concert. It’s really easy to take apart, so I’m happy to show people how it works inside. I’ll even let people play it. The whole point of performing concerts is to share the harpsichord with other people and let them experience it.”
Vollrath’s talent on the instrument has earned her a fair share of recognition, including a spot as a semi-finalist in the 2012 Jurow International Harpsichord Competition and the 2009 Bechtel Award presented by the Midwestern Historical Keyboard Society. Her harpsichord duo Zweikampf (which means “two struggling” in German)—formed with fellow Stony Brook graduate Stephen Gamboa—was a finalist in Early Music America’s inaugural Baroque Performance Competition. As a soloist, Vollrath regularly performs new music written for the historic instrument at the Festival of New American Music hosted at the Crocker Art Museum each year and the Center for New Music in San Francisco.
But no matter where you see Vollrath perform, you’ll most likely see her playing Bubba, one of two harpsichords she owns—she’s in the market for a third—that she uses when she travels. Though the beautiful turquoise Bubba is heavy (hence the name), it’s more travel friendly than the larger one Vollrath keeps at home, seeing as how the musician usually has to provide her own instrument when performing out of town.
“Sometimes I can borrow one from someone who lives nearby,” Vollrath says. “But more often than not it’s ‘have harpsichord, will travel.’”
When Vollrath isn’t touring, she plays organ and leads the choir at Faith Lutheran Church in Fair Oaks and has served as the program director for the past eight years of Shoshone Mountain Retreat, a Christian summer camp in northern Idaho.
“I love outdoor ministry and sending kids out into the wilderness,” Vollrath says. “Their cellphones don’t work up there, so they have to actually interact and talk. That process really appeals to me—getting people out of their comfort zone and giving them a new experience.”
Just like with her beloved harpsichord.
For more information, visit faythevollrath.com.
Jessica Laskey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.