Harpsichordist Kenneth Weiss Comes Home to the East End

Kenneth Weiss. Arthur Forjonel photo.
Kenneth Weiss. Arthur Forjonel photo.

By Emily J. Weitz

Kenneth Weiss grew up in New York City, at the threshold of culture. But New York just set him up for the world stage, and as a chamber musician, he’s spent much of his adult life touring and living in Europe. Currently based in Paris, Mr. Weiss still considers the East End of Long Island home.

When Mr. Weiss was a boy, his father bought land in Montauk and built a house. They spent summers and weekends there throughout the 70s and 80s, and as an adult, Mr. Weiss bought a house of his own. Even though he lives across the ocean, he still loves to come home to Montauk.

“With all my traveling,” he said, “Montauk is still my favorite place.”

That’s why he was so thrilled to be a part of the Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival, which draws instrumentalists from all over the world. When he performs on February 27, it won’t be his first time working with Marya Martin, founder and artistic director of BCMF. He’s performed in the festival twice before, but always in the summers. He was excited to be a part of the winter offerings.

“It’s a great treat to play with these musicians again,” he said. “The acoustics in the church are great, and I love the repertoire.”

This performance will feature Mr. Weiss on harpsichord, as well as Ms. Martin on flute, Bella Hristova on violin, Edward Arron on cello, and Cindy Wu on violin/viola. They will perform works by Bach and his sons.

“Bach is the greatest composer ever, in my opinion,” said Mr. Weiss. “And it’s interesting to have a family portrait, playing the music of him and his sons. The sons had a different musical language than their father did.”

The contrasts are evident in the repertoire, and in that way the audience will be brought on a musical journey.

“The music goes from being very profound to a little more light,” said Mr. Weiss. “It’s very rich and will be a wonderful program.”

Mr. Weiss didn’t always play the harpsichord. He started on the piano at six years old, but in his late teens, he was drawn to the harpsichord because of the improvisational quality. This isn’t something one tends to think of when it comes to chamber music. And for the piano, there isn’t as much room for improvisation. You play the music as it’s written.

“The role of harpsichord in chamber music,” explained Mr. Weiss, “is different from the piano. You improvise a lot of the part. While a piano part is completely written out by the composer, the harpsichord just has the bass line, and the performer can improvise the rest of the part.”

This gives him the freedom to interpret not only the piece, but the way the other musicians are playing it, and the way the acoustics are. It allows him to take into account his mood, and the mood of the audience.

“You take into account what the music sounds like, the phrasing,” he said. “These are improvisational elements that make it exciting.”

In any case, a musician has to have a sense of receptivity, enough to respond to what’s going on around. But the harpsichord just allows him to indulge that even more.

“What’s composed is fixed,” he said. “So you can’t radically change the part. The improvising gives you a little more innovation in a way.”

Mr. Weiss says that when you play with different people in different locales under different acoustics, there will be a different sound.

“In Bridgehampton, there’s another sound that you adapt to, and it makes it interesting,” he said.

Whether he’s in Paris, Bridgehampton, or anywhere else in the world, what Weiss loves about chamber music is that it’s a form of communicating and connecting.

“The greatest communication humans can have is through music,” he said. “It’s about interacting, and [a performance] is as individual as a human is.”

This extends past the pit and into the audience as well.

“You have a public in front of you, witnessing it,” he said. “That is what makes music such a beautiful expression of the human spirit.”

On bringing his music back home, Mr. Weiss couldn’t be more pleased that in his favorite place, there’s such a high level of music.

“I love the East End,” he said, “and my life has taken me so far from here. I’m really excited to play this music in Bridgehampton, and I encourage people to come out and share it with us.”

Kenneth Weiss will join the BCMF for Bach’s World on Saturday, February 27 at 6 p.m. at the Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church. For tickets, visit bcmf.org or call (212) 741-9403.