Even at the tender age of 13, Colin Tilney knew that his life’s path would oscillate between the old and the new. When he was a teen, however, the new was forbidden.
In a telephone interview from his home in Victoria, the globally recognized harpsichordist recalls that, as a young piano student, he was allowed to make his recital debut with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major. His other choice, Béla Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in E Major, was deemed far too recondite.
“They said the orchestra wouldn’t be able to play it,” Tilney notes. “So I was obviously interested in Bartók by then, and he’s played a large part in my life.”
Works by the great Hungarian won’t be featured in Colin Tilney Celebrates LXXX, produced by Early Music Vancouver and the Queer Arts Festival, but the 80-year-old’s eternally open mind will. On the program are works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Domenico Scarlatti, and Louis Couperin, mainstays of early music. But Tilney is also looking forward to performing the decidedly modern-sounding Quinque, written for him in 1971 by South African composer Ivy Priaulx Rainier.
“It’s just a curiosity about music from any time, I think,” Tilney says of his expansive tastes. “I don’t really feel a defender of early music. It’s just that my instrument is the harpsichord, and it has a period from about 1500 to 1800. Then it stops, but it comes back again in the 20th century.”
That it did is largely due to Arnold Dolmetsch, the French musician, instrument maker, and scholar. And Tilney, as it happens, has a direct connection to the man who was behind the renaissance of early music that took place during the first part of the 20th century.
“My parents bought a house near Haslemere, and that was the centre, of course, of the Dolmetsch family after he settled in England,” he explains. “They did concerts in the summer that they used old instruments in, and of course he had been for years experimenting with and buying old instruments, and repairing them and playing them and writing about them. So I went to those concerts, and later on I actually bought two clavichords by Dolmetsch.”
Tilney doesn’t make much of this hands-on connection to the musical past. Instead, he’d rather remind the Straight that during his lengthy stint as artistic director of the Toronto-based early-music group Les Coucous Bénévoles, he commissioned pieces from a who’s who of Canadian modernists, including Christopher Butterfield, Peter Hannan, Rodney Sharman, and Rudolf Komorous. He’s also arranged his 80th-birthday concert so that those who only come for the Bach—in this case the English Suite No. 6 in D Minor, which he describes as “full of the most amazing music”—won’t be able to avoid the Rainier, as it’s in the first half of the program.
“The title means ‘five’ in Latin, which I forgot to put in the program notes,” he says of Quinque. “There are five movements: they go fast, slow, fast, slow, fast, and the second slow one is a monologue—only one note at a time. I suppose you’d describe it as polytonal in harmony, but it also uses conventional notation to create fascinating rhythms. And it has many short bursts of sound, possibly reminiscences of her childhood in South Africa: birds and insects, et cetera.
“It’s sometimes just a little harsh, perhaps, for the harpsichord,” he adds, “but I think it’s a good thing to give an instrument an outing and see what it can do.”
Early Music Vancouver and the Queer Arts Festival present Colin Tilney Celebrates LXXX at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre on Friday (July 25).