ABO Blog

Baroque Music’s Curb Appeal: Our Approach to Style

An appealing home before an extrerior makeover

There are certain thoughts and observations on the evolution of baroque performance practice that I’ve been trying to express, but haven’t been able to. That is, until one morning recently, when I decided to skip the news and watch a re-run of HGTV’s Curb Appeal, one the network’s most popular shows.

This episode featured an attractively conceived house in classic style, a real gem in the neighborhood. The house had various sections to it with nuanced distinction for each, though everything tied-in with near perfect uniformity. The house’s exterior was painted in one appealing neutral color, and the trim around the windows and doorways was painted in a rich brown to off-set the rest of the building. The owners felt, however, that the house was starting to blend-in too much and wanted to freshen it with more vibrant, contrasting colors and other enhancements, without ruining or de-emphasizing the integrity of the original design.

The show’s host and chief designer, John Gidding, chose to paint each of the four sections with a different, but related color, and all four colors were significantly bolder than the neutral color already covering the exterior. The trim was accentuated in a variety of ways, and other things, such as landscaping, were re-done in a more striking manner to bring greater attention to the property and to the house. In the end, the classic house was re-enlivened with enhanced appeal through richer, contrasting colors and touches that brought out various ornamental decorations in a more noticeable and eye-catching way.

The same house after its colors and deisgn features were made more striking

[Note: the house pictured here, from the same show, isn’t the actual house I saw in the episode being discussed, but serves the same purpose.]

It struck me that something similar has been taking place in the evolution of period performance practice. About 40 years ago, in contrast to the familiar sounds of modern instruments, the basic sounds of a period ensemble struck us as a unique color that could enable us to hear and appreciate the music in a new, fresher way. And through the musicianship of great masters, such as Gustav Leonhardt, Jaap Schröder, and so many others, there was more and more shading and nuance highlighted in the music’s architecture.

But after a while – a couple decades at least — as we became used to the sounds produced by gut strings, wind sections of all wooden instruments, natural brass, and so on, the color of the baroque ensemble instead turned into the backdrop. We performers and listeners began wanting something bolder, brighter, darker, faster (etc.) from these ensembles, also with more ornaments and polished detail for greater attention. We wanted baroque music to grab a hold of our ears and shake them about, as much as caress them and allow them to relax.

The opening chorus of J.S. Bach’s St. John Passion is a good example. The undulating and relentless eighth and sixteenth notes in the string parts clearly signal the compelling nature and urgency of the story that’s about to unfold: Christ’s agonizing journey to the cross. Played in a straight-forward baroque manner, as we’ve grown accustomed to doing, the strings serve as a poignant symbol. Add a bit more pulsation, push, and even grit to the sound – while still phrasing in baroque style – and the phrases truly sound like a rumbling discomfort that has a disquieting impact on both the mind and the body. It becomes less cerebral and more visceral. By the last chord, listeners should say to themselves, “Wow, we’re in for quite a ride.” This is not to say that the more neutral approach lacks impact, it’s just the listener will feel a bit more settled, a bit more emotionally protected perhaps, through a more conventional soundscape.

Allowing the fire and passion in baroque music to express at greater levels of intensity is the primary characteristic of most newer period ensembles, but is also taking place in many of the more traditional groups, as others remain steadfast to a more restrained — and they may argue less in your face – manner of performance. This new push also causes us to interact with the source materials of performance practice in a different way. At first, these texts served as our instruction manuals, enabling us to evoke beautiful sounds from our new-old instruments, to execute various articulations and ornaments according to the expectations of the time, to tune properly, to recognize and try to enact ethos, to infuse rhetorical dimensions in our playing, and so on. As these texts continue to serve this purpose, we also now look to them to guide us in style contrast and to provide clues toward determining just how far we can take a piece before sounding too outrageous. After all, there’s a great deal of thrill in pushing ourselves close to the edge, and we believe our musical ancestors felt that way too.

But that can be a problem. Some ensembles routinely perform in such an overblown, high-octane manner that the relentlessness of their performance style becomes tiresome. Ten minutes is enough. Ironically, it also becomes predictable: the playing always will be as fast as fast can go, as loud as loud can be, as raucous a sound as they can produce, all with very little nuance, subtlety, and grace. Back to HGTV, It’s similar to the eye-rolling moment I inevitably have in almost every home re-design episode when the designer tries to push on the home-owner some ridiculous wall color that overtakes, rather than enhances, the entire house.

Pushing the extremes, however, is probably necessary for the evolution of discovery, and re-discovery, in baroque performance practice as we now embrace it. The only thing worse than an uncaringly clangy performance of a Vivaldi concerto, is one painted in beige.

Can we have both the guts and the grace? Can we boldly enhance the details of the music without washing away its foundation? Can we tell when to go full-throttle and when to lay-off and enjoy the ride? There’s only one way to find out.

Here’s hoping you’ll join us on October 12 to hear music emboldened by style, and that you’ll continue to support ABO as we take-on projects designed to engage you, our wonderful listener, in a truly gripping way.

For tickets to our October 12, 2013 concert, click here or purchase tickets at the door.

Posted 9/22/2013, Mark Bailey

And we’re off…

A few weeks from now we’ll open our season at ABO with an exciting and likely once in a lifetime event. Renowned baroque violinist Jaap Schröder will lead ABO musicians in a program of hidden treasures from the 17th century.

Jaap Schröder is one of the most influential figures in baroque music. His scholarship, teaching, and playing – all of which are magnified by his generous spirit – have enabled so many of us to do what we do in the field, and to enjoy a lifetime in pursuit of discovering, understanding, and performing magnificent music. The chance to work with him one on one is rare, and we’re happy to share the outcome of that experience with all of you.

The program will include a range of wonderful works that encompass a great deal of variety and interest. They include:

Overture in G minor by Henry Purcell
Lamento sopra la morte Ferdinandi IIII by Johann Heinrich Schmelzer
Overture no. 1 in G minor by Johann Bernhard Bach

Henry Purcell, of course, is well known as one of the great, prolific composers of court and sacred music in England, as he survived wars, fire, and plague. Schmelzer’s lament is conceived out of great love and respect, which is immediately apparent in this stunning and poignant piece of music. Johann Bernhard Bach was J.S.’s second cousin, and himself a fantastic composer, who wrote an overture with a thrilling virtuosic violin solo part.

Also on the program will be the American Baroque Singers performing works again by Purcell – “Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts,” and the lovely and gripping 8 part “Hear my prayer, O Lord.” As well, so as not to leave out great music of the era produced slightly to the east, the singers will perform two rarely heard Slavic motets that helped to usher polyphony into Russia and Ukraine.

The concert will take place on Friday, October 28, beginning at 7:30pm at the Yale Divinity School’s Marquand Chapel, a beautiful setting and acoustic for this project. (Parking is available on site.)

Much of this music, as posted in my last blog entry, is unavailable on recording. And to hear Jaap Schröder’s inspired leadership and understanding of these works is just as rare. Though tickets will be available at the door, we encourage you to buy and save online, by clicking: americanbaroqueorchestra.com/concerts

We would love to see you at this wonderful event. And stick around afterward to say hello and meet the members of ABO.

Music that disappears…the good ache

Several months ago Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, Jeanne Lamon, music director, invited me to do some transcriptions and arrangements of Slavic 17th century music to be performed at their season opener entitled, “Music Fit for a King.” I provided a series of fanfare–like works for trumpets, horn, and military drum, as well as two motet-like works for strings, one, in fact, in twelve solo voices. I attended rehearsals and three of the five performances in Toronto; as expected, I had a wonderful time with some of my very favorite baroque musicians.

At her pre-concert talk on opening night, harpsichordist and project coordinator Charlotte Nediger, a truly wonderful musician and person, pointed out that most of the music on the program was unpublished and hadn’t been recorded. At that point I hadn’t absorbed the comment fully. But sometime during the second performance, in anticipation that I would have only one more after that to hear all this fantastic music, I began to experience a kind of ache – a mild sadness of sorts. And then I realized it was because the next evening I might be hearing some of this music for the last time.

We’re so used to being able to get recordings or watch clips of our great works on Youtube, even if not always by our favorite musicians or under the best circumstances. Or, we order the music and perform it ourselves. Not necessarily the case this time.

I wasn’t quite as sad over the works I provided, because, especially with ABO, I have the means to perform them again, and likely will for our May concert, “Haydn in Russia.” And, coincidentally, the Schmelzer lament on the “Music Fit for a King” project also will be on our Oct. 28 concert under the leadership of Jaap Schröder. This had more to do with some of the other works I had gotten to know during my week with Tafelmusik, and the fact that what I was feeling, in a sense, was antithetical to our modern experience. That is to say, most of the music listeners encountered in the 17th century never would be heard by them again. So much truly amazing music went by in one brief encounter.

I found myself reacting to this realization at the concert in an interesting way. I began to listen even more attentively than usual, as if studying what I was hearing in order to memorize it. Nothing else had my attention but the music. Interestingly, I found much of the repertoire sticking in my mind clearly and vibrantly, more or less like getting to know someone in an elongated, energetic initial conversation, rather than little by little over time, not knowing when and if I might see that person again.

It was a good ache, therefore, in the sense that it caused me not to take the music for granted – not to put it off until sometime later. Certainly I’m not suggesting that listeners at the time reacted the same way. Perhaps some did, but many were probably as or more concerned with other activities taking place simultaneously, especially at court ceremonies and celebrations.

On ABO’s first concert of the season, which takes place Friday, October 28, 2011, at 7:30pm, Marquand Chapel (Yale Divinity School), guest conductor Jaap Schröder will lead the ensemble in some rarely heard masterworks of the 17th century – some good ache works – that aren’t readily available on recording, and that you may never hear again. This will be a unique opportunity to appreciate great music at a new and more memorable level, under the direction of one of the most important foundational figures in baroque music. We certainly hope to see you there.

You may purchase tickets through our website or at the door.

Because words can’t be ignored

One of the many contributions of historical performance practice is dispelling the notion that instrumental and vocal music should be treated as distinct or separate enterprises. Some of the finest baroque ensembles today, such as Bach Collegium Japan, Amsterdam Baroque, Les Arts Florissants, to name a few, support ensembles of singers alongside their orchestras. Therefore, there is conceivably no limit placed on the kind of repertoire from 17th and 18th centuries to be unearthed, studied, rehearsed, and shared in performance with eager listeners.

Even in our inaugural season, American Baroque Orchestra embraced vocal music as an artistic priority. The first piece performed by the ensemble to launch our existence served as a wonderful symbol of the extraordinary interaction that occurs between vocal and instrumental music: it was a certain soprano aria from Handel’s Ode for St. Cecelia’s Day. The aria is introduced by a cello soloist creating a song without words, and then the soprano joins in with the extraordinary text, “What passion cannot music raise and quell?” As the work unfolds, the cellist and soprano converse musically, never in such a stunning manner, I’m proud to say, than was performed by our own Kathryn Aaron and Ezra Seltzer.

It’s those specific words that, for me, provide the thematic tone and imperative for ABO. And so we seek to explore music fully, openly, and without contriving separations when dialogues should exist instead.

In this spirit, I’m happy to announce that, this upcoming season, we will inaugurate the American Baroque Singers (ABS), an ensemble of eight to twelve professional vocalists who specialize in early music performance. Some of the singers will also perform as soloists as well as perform together as an ensemble. Certain projects, from time to time, may also call on augmenting the ensemble for larger works.

The audience experience of ABO, now with ABS, will offer amazing juxtapositions, where vocal and instrumental music may be performed side by side, or as is the case with so many magnificent works of the era, involving both simultaneously, interacting so as to create wondrous literal and symbolic images through music.

We will fill you in on the specifics as we move forward in finalizing the details of the upcoming season. (Singers interested in performing with ABS may contact artistic director Mark Bailey through the ABO web site.)

So, what’s next?

On April 30 ABO completed the fourth project of our first season, and in just a few weeks we’ll be one year old. That’s quite a milestone, and we’ll happily reflect on our first year when the time comes. In the meantime, the reality of arts management dictates that we live the future in the present. In other words, we’re always planning what’s next, which has been a particularly enjoyable process regarding next year. We’re incredibly excited about ABO’s 2011-2012 season, which we’ll roll-out officially in just a few weeks. Before that happens, I’d like to let you know about a few of our featured artists next year and some of the wonderful pieces they’ll be performing.

Jaap Schröder

Jaap Schröder

Our season opener will be led by renowned baroque violinist Jaap Schröder, who is one of the first performers and scholars to invigorate our interest in baroque performance practice and our desire to unearth and perform the hidden treasures of the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries on the instruments of the composers’ time. Jaap has had profound impact on generations of baroque musicians, and his recordings and performances throughout his long career have been groundbreaking. If you don’t own a recording of him playing the unaccompanied partitas and sonatas for violin by J.S. Bach, I suggest you order it online right away. As well, he has many wonderful recordings of repertoire both well-known and little known. Jaap has influenced my understanding of baroque music in profound ways, and I’m truly looking forward to this project. The repertoire, by the way, will feature great music of the 17th century.

Enjoy this solo violin excerpt performed by Jaap Schröder, as well as the opening movement of J.S. Bach’s violin concerto in E major.

And then make plans to come hear this amazing musician leading ABO this fall.

Joan Plana

Joan Plana

Great music-making certainly doesn’t stop there. Joan Plana, one of my favorite baroque musicians of his generation – a gifted, insightful, skilled, and always interesting player – brings two fascinating works to our repertoire. To begin, he will perform the delightful, vibrant, and little known violin concerto in B-flat major by Pergolesi. This is a real treat for us and for our listeners. (There’s a terrific recording of it posted on Youtube featuring Elizabeth Wallfisch, another favorite of mine.) And then, we’re actually going to premiere a new work, except that it’s an old work too. You may know the baroque tradition of playing variations on a theme, and one of the most popular themes or tunes of the era was “La Folia.” Vivaldi, Corelli, Marais, CPE Bach, and many others, wrote wonderful variations on it in a number of styles. For this project, we will debut Joan’s own set of variations on “La Folia” played in an array of baroque nationalistic styles. We will be simultaneously historical and current, showing that creativity transcends time. I can’t wait to work with Joan on this project.

Jacques Lee Wood

Jacques Lee Wood

So far, the 17th and early to mid 18th centuries are well cared-for in ABO’s upcoming season, yet the next featured artist I’m excited to tell you about will give us a wonderful classical project. I can’t think of a better combination of music and talent: the Haydn cello concerto in C major played by Jacques Lee Wood. I’ve worked with Jacques on several projects over the years, and he never disappoints. Recently I had the pleasure of hearing Jacques play two Beethoven cello sonatas on an instrument with period set-up along with fortepiano, and I was reminded of the vitality, artistry, and historical sensitivity he’s going to bring to the Haydn – they’re a perfect match. Jacques is one of those rare players who will hold a listener’s attention and captivate his or her interest in every measure or phrase of music.

I suppose, at this point, I should save something for our actual season announcement scheduled for mid to late May. If you’ve been reading this blog, you also already know about Messiah. But there’s still more.

I hope you can see, even from this teaser, why all of us at ABO are so full of energy as we end one season and move on to another.

Oh No, Not Tchaikovsky Too!/More vibrato, please….PLEASE

Sir Roger Norrington pushes listeners and lovers of “classical music” to the edge. It’s bad enough that he recorded the Beethoven symphonies a while back with strict adherence to the metronome markings (many still perpetuate a modern-day rumor that Beethoven’s metronome was faulty), or that he’s conducted the monumental Brahms Requiem as if it’s chamber music. Now more and more people are discovering that he’s had the audacity to perform Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony according to a period performance aesthetic.  And the reaction of the viewers and listeners on YouTube where the work is posted is clear: utter contempt, disdain, and disgust, to the point where not a few wish violent acts upon Sir Roger and his followers. Tchaikovsky, for many, is the quintessential icon of romanticism, and no one gets to mess with that.

The vitriolic condemnations of this extraordinarily polished performance seem to revolve around the conviction that Tchaikovsky’s romantic soul has been suffocated in the Norrington interpretation, primarily through the lack of vibrato in the strings (the trigger issue for revolt). This stark contrast to most run-of-the-mill modern-day interpretations is most apparent in the opening measures of the final movement, which is uncharacteristically full of pathos when symphonies of that time tended to end with fast, even optimistic, bursts of musical energy.

My problem with the people who have a problem starts here: Tchaikovsky’s romanticism isn’t the same as our modern concept of romanticism, especially as we’re influenced by the overtly luscious and extravagant sounds of twentieth century post-romantics such as Mahler, Strauss, Rachmaninoff, Schreker, Korngold et. al. What’s worse is that, under a notion that bigger-louder-brighter is better, we keep trying to expand the size of already large post-romantic works – we keep adding instrumentalists, making concert halls bigger, raising the pitch, elongating ritards, increasing vibrato etc. And Tchaikovsky’s music, which obviously comes before post-romanticism, is seemingly always under pressure to bulk-up similarly. It’s like Tchaikovsky on steroids: unnatural, overly moody, and marred by a bad musical complexion.

Tchaikovsky’s music, of course, isn’t in any way a reaction to the modern need for bigger-louder-brighter. Rather, he’s coming from Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and Schubert. His music represents noticeable, but not necessarily gigantic, steps forward in his time. Tchaikovsky complained that the highly decorative or ornamental aspects of eighteenth century music created a sense of superficiality (which I believe he misjudged) and sought in his music to convey emotional depth through elongated, straight-forward melodies and an expanded palette of harmonies, all further amplified by a wider array of colors, textures, and rhythms. To appreciate these elements as Tchaikovsky intended them means to hear them clearly, without blurring  or exaggeration.

And now we come to vibrato. The notion that a constant, fast, penetrating vibrato – the default standard for modern playing — is the predominant, or even secondarily characteristic, sound of Tchaikovsky’s music makes no sense, even if that’s how we hear it performed most of the time. That type of vibrato muddies the very melodies and flavored harmonies Tchaikovsky sought to convey expressively and emotionally. It’s like making the steak all about the steak sauce. The problem is that vibrato alters pitch. And for a harmony to ring true, there needs to be that exact, specific, physics-defined relationship among the pitches that allows the sonority to resonate and ring with overtones (something Tchaikovsky certainly would have wanted, given the quality of church music he composed for reverberant spaces). If the pitches are vacillating, there’s no way for the pure dimensions of harmony to lock into place.

Take a look at this video instructing the slow motion practice of vibrato and listen to how much a single pitch is altered – often by entire semi-tone(!)– in the exercise.

Imagine what that’s doing to the harmony when vibrato is insistently and constantly added not by one, but several string players at once. (Granted, at a faster speed the pitch change probably narrows a bit and will be slightly less apparent, but still there’s something working against the harmony – a sort of obsessive shaking while the harmony is trying to stabilize…like trying to land an airplane in turbulence etc.)

Regarding the Norrington performance of the sixth symphony, if you haven’t heard it yet, it’s probably worth clicking around the movements to get a sense of his approach (they’re all on YouTube), since it’s something we’re not used to hearing. For the sake of this discussion, however, let’s make the following comparison.  Listen to the first 20 seconds of the Norrington rendition; press pause or stop, and immediately click on the Dutoit version below for the first 20 seconds. Especially listen to and compare the very first chord (and then when it’s repeated) in the two versions.

The Dutoit rendition is certainly more emotional from our current-day post-romantic perspective – in other words, with ears that are more than one hundred years older than Tchaikovsky’s and that often expect more of everything. Yet that first chord is struggling to speak as an expressive and powerful sonority, blurred, clouded, and overtaken by so much heavy vibrato. In the Norrington version the sonority rings forth, un-clouded, un-blurred, and begging to form an anxious, expressive phrase.  And that makes a difference.

Recordings of violinists such as Josef Joachim and Leopold Auer who performed during Tchaikovsky’s lifetime reveal a tone quality that is more transparent and that makes use of vibrato sparingly. Have a listen to this recording of Leopold Auer playing a Tchaikovsky melody. Tchaikovsky composed music for Auer, and therefore knew and respected his playing. Even though this recording was made in 1920, well after Tchaikovsky’s death, Auer’s tone production clearly reflects nineteenth century aesthetics.  His use of vibrato is subtle and nuanced, certainly nothing like the constant, relentless, fast style of vibrato so many players insist on today, as if to try to drill a hole into the fingerboard (metal strings don’t help the cause). Logic dictates that Auer’s approach had much more to do with the world of sound in which Tchaikovsky composed, in which Tchaikovsky’s expressive language of melody, harmony, and rhythm would have had greater impact on the ears – ears not overtaken by expressive devises such as vibrato, which were meant to enhance, not hijack, the sound.

It’s ironic that complaints with a more informed performance practice of Tchaikovsky’s music accuse performers like Sir Roger of stripping the composer’s works from a type of sound that actually wasn’t there in the first place. Rather, it’s how we have reinterpreted and redefined that sound through music-training methods that presume one standard technique for playing everything, and aren’t tracking the modern evolution of those techniques to ensure balance and context in the composer’s world (perhaps the subject of another posting).

So, yes, Tchaikovsky too, and in terms of vibrato, perhaps it’s time to cut back a bit and learn to appreciate the beauty of purer sound.

Happy Birthday, Herr Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach, born this day in 1685, is perhaps the most lauded and revered of all famous “classical” composers. His music transcends. I’ve sat through jaw-dropping, absolutely brilliant performances of his works (e.g. Bach Collegium Japan at Carnegie Hall a few years ago performing the St. Matthew Passion), and I’ve endured mediocre to plain-old bad performances after which the audience seemed to hold the same opinion as if they had been with me at Carnegie Hall: Bach is amazing!

Apart from the platitudes, what is it that so highly distinguishes Bach in the world of concert music, and even among his contemporaries? How does he, for us, so often achieve the sublime? Certainly Bach embraces and conveys many of the common stylistic features of the high baroque era, such as the use of rhetoric, affections, ethos, and various forms of image association to achieve mood and emotion. Not only that, Bach also develops a particular musical idea, phrase after phrase, until there’s a point of culmination and satisfaction. But that’s also common among his peers (there’s not an aria or chorus in Messiah that Handel neglects to tend to as it unfolds).

It’s the way Bach develops an idea, however, that may make the difference. He often relentlessly adheres to a profound sense of symmetry through patterns that insistently sustain certain qualities of the music as others evolve. If language may be used as an analogy, Bach articulates a meaningful and poignant statement up front – eloquently and beautifully crafted (such as the opening of any great speech) – and then, within that “verbal” framework, he ponders the nuanced meaning of each word or grouping of words, revealing other related dimensions to their meaning, but never-straying from the essence of the original statement. In musical terms, we feel we’ve understood something cognitively, even before he’s used any sung text to convey meaning in a more concrete manner (if he’s using text at all).

Take for instance the wonderfully tuneful melody featured midway through one of my favorite Bach works, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (BWV 140). Bach states and develops the melody in patterns that allow it to wander in various directions, but never too far from the original idea. It strikes us as brilliantly cohesive, balanced, and yet in no way contrived or overly controlled. After we embrace a sense of meaning, however abstract, then we’re already in the mood to hear the text, which extends, rather than shifts, the emotional essence and ethos of the introductory melody. And thus the emotions, as well as the mind, feel equally satisfied.

In this next example from the opening chorus of the St. John Passion, Bach again proposes a musical idea to introduce an enormous, complex, and highly nuanced piece of music. The bass instruments relentlessly throb in pulsating eighth notes. The upper strings create a wash of sound as the oboes sigh in pointed articulations — building measure by measure — until finally the choir interjects. And thus the journey is underway and there’s no turning back. It’s all one basic idea, but while exploring all the inner power of that idea as well (music begins at 0:53):

Now, for the sake of contrast, let’s make a comparison with the music of Bach’s eldest son, Carl Philipp Emanuel (CPE), a brilliant musician in his own right who helped to usher in the classical era. In less time and musical space than Johann uses to examine a single musical idea, CPE, in opening of this symphony, bounces from one musical idea to the next — and to the next — as if he’s fighting attention deficit disorder:

As it turns out, I find CPE’s approach incredibly exciting and lacking in inhibition. He’s a terrific and often under-rated composer. But I don’t think his music appeals to my mind as much. In other words, Johann deepens my mental focus, while CPE lets my mind go play.

In the end, Johann convinces us that we’re understanding in concrete terms music that actually communicates through abstract patterns of sound. His music makes our mind emotional and our emotions rational. And perhaps this is where he achieves transcendence.

Messiah again? Really?

As we discuss and finalize next season, the ABO staff is excited about the possibility of doing another Messiah project. I am too. Yet in my mind I hear other voices saying something else. They’re my colleagues and mentors asking, “Why spend an entire project on Messiah again next year, especially as a new baroque ensemble, when there’s so much other great 17th and 18th century music to discover and perform? Why give in?”

While ABO happily embraces the imperative to perform rarely heard masterpieces – and we couldn’t be more excited about some of these pieces on next season’s repertoire – we’re also committed to looking at familiar works to unearth new insights and to inspire new forms of appreciation for them. At our February 19 (2011) all-Mozart concert, for instance, many of you heard a slightly different take on the well-known Exsultate, Jubilate!, which, in our version, incorporated a good amount of ornamentation as taught by Mozart’s father, Leopold. Our rendition also drew inspiration and instruction from the enhanced version of the Lucia Silla aria ornamented in Mozart’s sister’s hand (as likely dictated to her by Wolfgang), composed just before the Exsultate and involving the same singer.

Photo by M. Reynard

This applies even more so to Messiah, which is documented in several versions for a series of annual performances that took place during and after Handel’s lifetime. At our performance last year, sponsored by the New Haven Oratorio Choir and Orchestra (an ensemble I also direct), and with the wonderful trebles of St. Paul’s Choir (Fairfield) as guests, we focused on Handel’s initial inspiration and inclinations as he formulated Messiah from the very beginning. I more of less restricted my preparation to Handel’s handwritten manuscript and the conductor’s score prepared under his supervision for the premier performance (and used subsequently). We added back measures that had been scratched out at some later time, just to hear what they sounded like (and to note that sometimes a composer’s initial thoughts in draft form are just as good as later revisions, especially when dealing with a prolific genius such as Handel). The orchestra even performed the first few measures of “Thus saith the Lord” in its earlier incarnation from Handel’s conductor’s score, since it wasn’t documented as an option in the parts we were using. Also, as I grow more convinced by certain forms of evidence and logic suggesting that Handel would have used a good amount of notes inégales (simply put, runs of notes that are swung), we applied that stylistic practice throughout the performance. The result was a Messiah that, at least for me, was never as fresh, intimate, multi-layered, and energized as in this early rendition.

And there are more Messiah versions for us to explore and perform. Many more. In other words, ABO promises always to offer some new way of embracing and understanding this multi-faceted masterwork.

Another reason for performing Messiah again next year is just as important: because you want us to. Let’s face it – you love Messiah. Last year you gave us an audience size that pretty much filled the hall. And I have no doubt more of you will come next year as ABO becomes even better known throughout the region. You can’t wait to hear the familiar choruses (which, interestingly, Handel didn’t alter as he otherwise revised the work for different singers and circumstances); you’re eager to allow the opening majestic measures of the overture to take over the hall, and somehow everything changes for the better when we get to proclaim “Hallelujah” with such extraordinary joy — all to experience the full and untiring power and beauty of this profound and nuanced work.

And yes, your attendance in large numbers helps to fund other projects too – including those lesser-known and underappreciated works, and still be able to pay our professional musicians and cover related performance and operational costs. And therefore, with all due respect to the voices inside my head, at this point they would have to talk us out of it.

To illustrate some of the unique characteristics of Handel’s first Messiah:

Photo by M. Reynard

Here’s the opening of the bass recitative “Thus saith the Lord,” sung in concert by Benjamin Thorburn with the American Baroque Orchestra, using the first opening Handel wrote before scratching it out and replacing it with the more familiar one. Handel’s first idea was perhaps a bit more majestic in its declamation.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Photo by M. Reynard

Handel’s initial version of the great soprano aria “Rejoice greatly” is in 12/8 with a dance-like vitality to it. Here Kathryn Aaron, in the same ABO performance, brings the aria to an exciting close with energy and the right touch of ornamentation.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Photo by M. Reynard

As illustrated here by alto Tuesday Rupp, the orchestra, and the choir, “O Thou that tellest…” enables to the music to swing in certain passages, adding a sense of joy and lilt that is hard to achieve if all rhythms are done in a completely even and straight-forward manner.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Let’s share more of this wonderful piece together, and discover more hidden, wondrous moments, next season!