SAN DIEGO — Not long ago, staging a concert that featured ancient instruments was a sure-fire draw. Nearly any group of amateur tootlers, especially if garbed in anything resembling period costume, would bring an audience just to entertain the exotic sounds of recorder, krummhorn or sackbut. And in those urbane centers where early music flourished, if, say, a harpsichord player donned a brocade coat and a powdered peruke, it was deemed the last word.
Fortunately, musical expectations have matured beyond the superficial infatuation with strange timbres and period clothes. Due in part to the plethora of high-performance early-music recordings, we now quite properly expect from any ensemble using authentic instruments the same energetic and professional musical communication we demand from one employing more familiar instruments.
Thomas Stauffer and Cynthia Darby's Sunday evening concert of late 18th-Century repertory for Baroque cello and fortepiano (a genteel predecessor to the modern piano) at San Diego State University did not quite realize that lofty goal. While both performers are thoroughly professional--Stauffer is a member of the SDSU music faculty as well as principal cello in a couple of local orchestras--and each exuded a highly cultivated musical sensibility, their instruments kept getting in the way of their music-making. For Stauffer, the problem was a recurring intonation struggle with his short-necked, peg-less, restored 18th-Century cello; for Darby, it was the muffled, unresonant timbre of her kit-built fortepiano patterned after a 1784 Stein instrument.