In 1762, Johann Christian Bach, youngest son of the old master, J.S. Bach, journeyed to London for a lucrative position with the King’s Theatre. Shortly thereafter, he was appointed Music Master to Queen Charlotte Sophia (wife of “Mad” King George III) and the Royal Family. With a few close musical friends, the “London Bach” formed an ensemble to entertain Her Majesty in her private chambers: The Queen’s Chamber Band.
It is in this spirit of intimate, personal performance that Elaine Comparone, “a harpsichordist with few equals” (Donal Henahan, The New York Times), has successfully recreated The Queen’s Chamber Band with nine distinguished soloists, whose mastery of both solo repertoire and chamber music thrills audiences worldwide.
The ensemble unites breathtaking virtuosity, profound historical knowledge, and extraordinary musical sensitivity to achieve a distinctive post-modern synthesis of historically-informed performance, vitality, and immediacy. Playing a combination of modern, antique, and replica instruments, the QCB demonstrates annually its commitment to music of our time by closing each concert season with a climax of newly-composed works.
In 1978, harpsichordist Elaine Comparone, National Endowment for the Arts grantee, Concert Artists Guild award winner, former Fulbright scholar and Affiliate Artist, founded Harpsichord Unlimited with Ronald S. Smith, librarian and music aficionado and Dorothy Wick, amateur harpsichordist and archivist. Their intent was to bring the harpsichord to a wide audience and to teach the public about the instrument, its history and its music.
The first project of Harpsichord Unlimited was a festival of chamber music at St. Joseph's Church in Greenwich Village. The series, known as the Winterfest Concerts, attracted large crowds and later extended its purview to St. Michael's Church on Manhattan's Upper West Side. These concerts ran for ten years, featuring Elaine Comparone, various guest artists and an in-house group, The Bach Family Strings. The programs included both little known and familiar early masterpieces along with contemporary works, all with harpsichord.
In 1983, Harpsichord Unlimited commissioned a Quintet for Harpsichord and Strings (later expanded into a concerto) by American composer Robert Baksa. The New York State Council on the Arts provided part of that commission. Elaine Comparone and the Bach Family Strings premiered it at Merkin Hall in 1985.
In 1987, Elaine Comparone decided to develop some resident ensembles that would work together intensively. She founded Trio Bell'Arte (flute, oboe and harpsichord). The group secured management with Columbia Artists and toured nationwide for six years. Harpsichord Unlimited presented Trio Bell'Arte in a New York debut entitled "C.P.E. Meets the Moderns". The ensemble performed little known works of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and premiered works by Robert Baksa, William Thomas McKinley and Stephen Gryc.
In 1988, Elaine Comparone founded Bach With Pluck!, a harpsichord-guitar duo that tours nationally. Harpsichord Unlimited and Richard Kapp's recording label ESS.A.Y sponsored the duo in two recordings of music by J.S. Bach: "Bach With Pluck!" and "Bach With Pluck!", Vol. II. Harpsichord Unlimited applied for and won a Community Organizations grant from Lincoln Center that made possible a 1994 debut for the duo at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall. The duo performed the world premieres of new works by guitarist/composer Dusan Bogdanovic, commissioned by Harpsichord Unlimited.
In 1990, Elaine Comparone founded The Queen's Chamber Band (= QCB), a group that encompasses Trio Bell'Arte, Bach with Pluck! and The Bach Family Strings. For the 1996-1997 season, Harpsichord Unlimited presented The Queen's Chamber Band in a series of three Brunchtime Concerts at St. Peter's Church at Citicorp Center in midtown Manhattan. The 1997-1998 series included four concerts, with a special concert of music for two harpsichords featuring guest artist Igor Kipnis and Elaine Comparone. New Music for the Band, the final concert that became an annual event, spotlighted the premieres of seven pieces written especially for members of The Queen's Chamber Band. Composers-in-residence Robert Baksa, Elodie Lauten, Stephen Kemp, Peter Susser, Charles Sibirsky, and two composer-members, Marshall Coid and Daniel Waitzman composed music for various instrumental-vocal combinations of QCB members.
The two-pronged 1998-1999 season, which celebrated the 20th Anniversary of Harpsichord Unlimited, offered a series of three concerts at Merkin Hall and three at St. Peter's Lutheran Church. In 2002 Harpsichord Unlimited moved the Sunday afternoon concerts to Carnegie's Weill Hall, while retaining the Wednesday evenings at Merkin Hall. In addition, the organization inaugurated an upstate concert series at Pleshakov Music Center called Hudson Festival Baroque. Subsequently, the QCB enjoyed residencies at two historic Manhattan churches, Church of the Transfigurationa and the First Moravian Church.
In September of 2002, The Queen's Chamber Trio made its Carnegie Hall debut at Weill Recital Hall with a concert of music by Mozart, Haydn and L.v. Beethoven entitled "A Viennese Threesome". Violinist Robert Zubrycki, cellist Peter Seidenberg and harpsichordist Elaine Comparone created the new entity out of enjoyment of each other's musicianship experienced in The Queen's Chamber Band and their love of the great trio literature commonly performed today on violin, cello and modern grand piano. The Queen's Chamber Trio proposed to shed a new and different light on these pieces by performing them on the harpsichord. The Trio gives an annual New York concert on Thanksgiving Weekend; and, under the sponsorship of Harpsichord Unlimited and Lyrichord Discs has released three recordings of classic "piano" trios.
The New York City series at Carnegie's Weill Hall and Merkin Hall continued until May of 2009 when several of the organization's primary donors abruptly suspended their financial support in the wake of the economic crisis of 2008. Members of the The Queen's Chamber Band voted to continue the group's musical activities for the 2009-2010 season without promise of fees in the near future and Harpsichord Unlimited planned a truncated series in two under-served areas in Manhattan: St. Mark's Church-In-the-Bowery on the lower East Side and First Moravian Church in the Murray Hill district. Happily, the 2010-2011 New York City series continues to flourish as of this November 2010 update with the help of new supporters and many smaller contributions enabling Harpsichord Unlimited to pay the musicians' fees.
Since 1996, Harpsichord Unlimited has commissioned more than forty new chamber works inspired by the harpsichord in various instrumental and vocal combinations and premiered by The Queen's Chamber Band. Featured composers have included Joseph Fenimore, William Mayer, Harold Farberman, Thomas Pasatieri, José Raúl Bernardo, Jon Deak, George Quincy, David Winkler, Daniel Waitzman, Susan Kander, Bill McDaniel, David MacDonald, David Shohl, Alan Broadbent and many others. In 2000 Capstone Records released NewYorkCityMusic , a collection of some of the QCB's favorite pieces, including works by resident composer/countertenor Marshall Coid (featured also as performer), Elodie Lauten, Stephen Kemp, Peter Susser, Charles Sibirsky and Kenjie Bunch. Since its incepti, Harpsichord Unlimited has promoted and presented new music for the harpsichord, along with early music, in the belief that the harpsichord's sonic color, sparkle and character make it a viable and vibrant contemporary instrument.