Having played this concert twice in the past week, once at the Art Museum at Indiana University Bloomington, and once at Queens College, CUNY, I am excited that you too will be able to hear it. Titled “Then and Now, a concert of baroque music and contemporary music for baroque instruments”, it will take place tomorrow night, Friday October 18, at 8:00 PM at Kellogg Music Center at Bard College at Simon’s Rock. The musicians are Eva Legêne, recorder, Tatsuya Muraishi, violin, Masayuki Maki, harpsichord and myself on viola da gamba. Admission is free.
Something about Williamstown Theatre Festival’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” just didn’t click for me. It was not for lack of ideas — several clever, a couple brilliant. It was the flow. I noticed it right away when the stage couldn’t seem to set up a rhythm with the laughter in the house. When a comedy is really cooking, a rhythm sets up. It’s a kind of play, this back and forth. When it is really good, it has a naturalness, even an inevitability. That did not happen in the performance I heard (July 4). Lines were often lost in the laughter; the house was often slow to respond, and once in a while the response seemed forced.
Like all the great institutions which are celebrating anniversaries this year, Aston Magna’s 40th anniversary season is much like any other. What better way to celebrate an important anniversary than to maintain the quality one has been known for and to reaffirm the founding principles? This year’s season, launched by gala events at Brandeis and at Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood, will be rich in familiar repertory — Monteverdi, Purcell, Vivaldi, Telemann, the Bach family, and Mozart — and familiar faces: the violinist Daniel Stepner, the gambist Laura Jeppesen, harpsichordist John Gibbons, singers Dominique Labelle, Deborah Rentz-Moore, and William Hite. Of course Stanley Ritchie will be on hand. Some very distinguished artists will be joining them: keyboard players Peter Sykes and Malcom Bilson, and Eric Hoeprich, whose Glossa recording of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto I just now warmly praised in a review article—and this is only a few.
For a long time I was put off Vivaldi by the incessant repetitions of the Four Seasons on the local classical radio station. This was of course unfair, but it can be tricky to find performances of many of his other several hundred pieces (not least in Venice itself), and in fact the frequently encountered way of playing Vivaldi, with a certain edge, a forthright, frenetic sort of energy, which may display the technical virtuosity to maximum effect, is unfair too. Australian Brandenburg Orchestra artistic director and harpsichordist Paul Dyer and guest violinist and director Federico Guglielmo have constructed a program which is remarkably varied — indeed to present a program devoted to a single composer (or an exhibition devoted to a single artist) only really works with and artistic personality capable of a varied outlook lest we become oppressed by the artist’s obsessions. Some of these concerti have not been published and clearly the two musicians have put much deep thought and research into their performance. Here is a Vivaldi with subtlety of expression, which also puts to good use all of this orchestra’s skill across the instruments without showing off. All the concerti are “for several instruments” with some instruments re-apearing as soloists with a consistent personality and characteristically written parts, but with something quite different to say in each concerto. The program is carefully arranged in a kind of cycle, giving the sense of music taking us on a journey.
Something is happening with increasing frequency in Baroque performance practice these days. A kind of third way has emerged. It would be wrong to call it a half-way house; it’s something more like a suite of rooms each with its own individual slant. The poles are a die-hard kind of historical accuracy, rigid in its orthodoxy, and now pretty much a retro activity, or large opulent orchestras playing Baroque music, if they play it at all, with a 19th-century approach. What seems to be nascent these days is a kind of third way: modern orchestras, even large ones, performing with a much greater sense of tonal and rhetorical knowledge of 18th century style. Nikolaus Harnoncourt started this when he recorded the Beethoven symphonies with a modern orchestra, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, but used brass instruments which were tricked out in the 18th century way. It has continued, nay flourished, in the 21st century, especially in the symphonies of Beethoven again, where its main defenders have been Osmo Vänskä with the Minnesota Orchestra and Paavo Järvi with the Chamber Orchestra of Bremen. These are players using the modern style but with a believable, not-manufactured Baroque sound. Most recently Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra have released a full set of Beethoven symphonies where something of this third way may be heard. These forces have also recorded the Bach Passions and the Brandenburg concertos with modern instruments, but sounding stylistically informed.
The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra specializes in playing Baroque music on period instruments, though they often include earlier 16th and later 18th century music too, but for this program they have taken a cross section of late Baroque Italy and Germany selecting pieces all from the 1720’s and 1730’s (or in a similar style). They have also invited Roman violinist Riccardo Minasi to direct and conduct the orchestra with a program of interesting Vivaldi concerti as well as the much more obscure Jan Dismas Zelenka, who was only rediscovered around the middle of the last century, though his 300th birthday in 1979 passed without any celebration from the recording industry (according to Early Music). A Bohemian originally, Zelenka played double bass for the Dresden court orchestra, later composing for the royal chapel, then for a short while acting as Kapellmeister. The ABO plans to play a bit more of his music next year, a sample of his church music. They have also announced for their 2012 season Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo in concert, which is wonderful news for Sydney operaphiles who now at least have three operas to look forward to next year — L’Orfeo, Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades with Ashkenazy and the Sydney Symphony and the Pinchgut company’s production in December. Baroque music, especially in the serious and exuberant way the ABO plays it, is lively, vigorous and sanguine but without violence or forcefulness. In this way Baroque music has much to teach humanity of the 21st Century.
As Ryan Turner began his second season as Music Director of Emmanuel Music so ambitiously with Bach’s B Minor Mass, it seems a good time to reflect on this small, but extremely productive organization and its place in the Boston musical world. One of the most characteristic—and felicitous—aspects of classical music in Boston is the proliferation of these groups, often founded around a chorus, but featuring non-choral music as well, often cultivating a speciality in Baroque music, and often combining this with the music of Classical, Romantic, and contemporary composers. Boston is home to other groups that play Baroque music on period instruments, and some of these have achieved international reputations. At Emmanuel music of the eighteenth century and earlier is played on modern instruments in a style which conforms more or less with the performance practices developed in the postwar years by Günther Ramin and Kurt Thomas with the Thomanerchor at Leipzig, and extending to Fritz Lehmann and Karl Richter in Berlin and Munich—with roots in the reformed performances of the 1920s. This doesn’t mean that these musicians don’t listen to their historically informed colleagues. In Boston, it is pretty well impossible for them not to exchange ideas and to learn from one another. As compelling as period performances of Baroque masters are, there is one great virtue to modern instruments: the music can be performed as part of a tradition extending up to the present day. The musicians can perform Bach seamlessly amidst Brahms, Bruckner, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Vaughn Williams, or, say, John Harbison, Principal Guest Conductor at Emmanuel Music, who wrote an enlightening personal note on the B Minor Mass for this performance.
Most seem to agree musical historicism can go too far: imagine a Plymouth Plantation-style re-enactment of a concert of Baroque music with the audience coming and going, eating picnics in the gods, a musician wearing a modern watch dismissed as a “farb.” Luckily most musical historicists are more practical and flexible. For this concert the hall lights stayed up, which is a nice touch, even if electrics are not as pretty as the candle-lit halls of days past. Unfortunately, and I assume unintended by the musicians, the audience did come and go in between the first several songs, which not only rudely made the musicians wait but disrupted the flow of the program, and one woman, having missed three or four songs, came clumping down the wood-floored aisle in high-heels making an incredible noise. More cheerfully, Mr Scholl had the audience join in on the refrain of Purcell’s Man is for the Woman Made, which, according to Mr Scholl, is what Purcell intended when he originally composed it, for light relief in the theatre. And it did provide some short refreshing relief among the quite serious music in this program.