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.
[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