It was excellent to read Kenneth Cooper’s words recently on how he loved the sound of Bach with great players playing great instruments in a large hall. So do I, and this is what we got and have gotten for years now on New Year’s Day in the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall in the annual performances by the Berkshire Bach Ensemble. We seem to have arrived at a place between the modern instrument folks (usually using old instruments altered to achieve a stronger sound) and the early music crowd (which tries to emulate the sounds of the 18th century orchestra). Each has its own political correctness, and each works.
Back in the day, when music in the theatre manifested itself dramatically as dance and singing together — specifically ballet and opera — it did so in a myriad of different forms. Though we now call them opera-ballets (or even just operas), they can be difficult to imagine now that the two art forms are not only separate themselves, but tend to have separate audiences in many cities, sharing only their theatre in common. Conveniently, but unfortunately, the choreography has been lost in all cases and the works are revived as what we now call opera in the main. A dance of course is much more difficult to write down than music — though written music is not itself trivial, in fact, baroque composers had no desire to write down every note, and quite a bit of the creative act we now assign to composers was originally given to musicians and singers, ornamentation in particular, were and are very important and in most cases these improvisations were not thought to be written down since that would defeat their whole purpose of expressive dramatic spontaneity. These baroque operas, even the French ones of Lully and Rameau in which the dancing is particularly important, are first and foremost watched and listened to today as opera, even when some care, attention and time are given to recreating the choreography.
L’Orfeo is a performer’s piece. Composed at a time when the composition of music meant something quite different to what it does now, or in the 19th Century, though certain aleatory pieces of the 20th Century left very much of the act of creation to the performer these do seem to be considered somewhat freakish by many — to many programmers of concerts and some in audiences in particular — and popular opinion now gives very rigidly defined roles to composer and performer, to the point that many expect a very narrow field of professional activities of each. Perhaps it is partly the force of professional specialization which seems so strong nowadays, especially in the sciences. We wouldn’t want to turn into a race of Fachidioten, though.
The first three programs of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra this year have made a nice historical progression from the late Baroque of Vivaldi, to that of central Europe and England with Bach, Zelenka and Handel, now to the late classical period. The fortepiano has come out to replace the harpsichord and the orchestra grown with thicker string sections and clarinets to bring us Haydn and the Italian trumpet virtuoso Gabriele Cassone. For the Haydn G major Symphony, the so-called “Surprise,” Paul Dyer conducts from behind the fortepiano bench, and lays chords oftentimes too while using his body and shoulders to conduct. Though we can catch at times some of the period reproduction fortepiano’s beautiful sonorities, it is too large a hall really to do it justice and often it gets swallowed in the orchestra, but no matter, that is not its purpose here, though it does make a slight difference in color. What is important is that with the larger (late) classical orchestra, the conductor is necessary and conductorly music-making is readily audible here. With more dynamic possibilities from the backed-up strings, and timpani, and opportunities to use them thanks to Haydn (not to mention Gluck!) — and Maestro Dyer (though he never gives himself the label “conductor”) does know how to use it — the orchestra adapts naturally and readily to the new-sounding late 18th century palate. The strings have more solidity, they are still clear, very precise, with guest concertmaster Madeleine Easton leading them with her beautiful playing, but with more structure, polished but with a fine texture by virtue of the gut strings and the varied shapes and sizes of the violins. The orchestra is set up with cellos on the left next to the first violins, and basses, violas and second violins on the right, horns on the back left, trumpets (natural baroque ones) on the back right with the woodwinds in between.
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.
Paul Dyer says he sees playing Johann Sebastian Bach as the “ultimate experience for a musician,” rightfully so, the same goes for a listener too, and in naming his orchestra after the most famous of Bach’s instrumental works, he puts his money where his mouth is, but more importantly so in the fine, detailed playing, expressiveness and unforced enthusiasm, which show much care and thought in the preparation of this program. Sydney perhaps is not and never claimed to be a great Bach town, but either way, as a lover of his music, I can feel sorely deprived of him, despite the odd performance on period instruments or otherwise over the last two years. So it felt like a parched walker coming upon a water-hole to hear a program where the whole first half was devoted to Bach and the rest to contemporary (with a small ‘c’) music. The ABO has pulled out many of the stops (within reason), assembling a larger-than-usual group of 10 violins, four violas, three cellos, one bass, two flutes, three oboes, one bassoon, two horns, three trumpets, theorbo, timpani, organ and harpsichord, as well as a choir of about 35, though of course not all of these for all pieces.
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.
Having grown up in the northern hemisphere, the winter Christmas is ingrained in me, but the event is fundamentally connected to mid-winter. The pagan winter solstice festival with its strong connection to nature, namely the Sun, a celebration of the days starting to lengthen and a new year beginning, is tied to Christmas as the scriptural imagery is compatible with the older ritual’s. Zeus, Dionysus, Apollo, and Mithras are all also alleged to have been born on the (northern) winter solstice and St. Chrysostom said of the timing of the Nativity in the 4th Century ‘while the heathen were busied with their profane rites the Christians might perform their holy ones without disturbance’ but also thought it a suitable birthday for the ‘Sun of Righteousness.’ In that sense it naturally and intuitively doesn’t feel like the right festival for the southern hemisphere’s summer solstice. So unique traditions evolve here and the more appealing ones are strongly connected to nature — spending all your time outside enjoying the long daylight while it lasts, roses blooming, surfing, eating seafood, fresh fruit, especially cherries, etc. —, but still are colored by the northern traditions. With his Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, Sydney’s main squeeze for Baroque music and period instrument lovers, Paul Dyer provides the best music for this austral summer solstice Christmas, music which makes natural and festive sense. It is very serious, ‘scholarly’ music, but with the artistic spirit of the Baroque steeping it, it has a bright festive sunny quality too, especially in the style of their playing. Dyer has assembled a varied program of traditional carols played very thoughtfully, Spanish popular music from the 16th Century, late Baroque instrumental music and early Baroque motets and more recently composed pieces. Somehow Dyer’s enthusiasm, sense of occasion and serious-festive-art approach to music allows all this to hang together comfortably.