Why Baroque?

From our Artistic Director, Mark Bailey-

It’s important to point out that in the American Baroque Orchestra (ABO) we’re using “baroque” to indicate an approach — or a way of exploring, thinking about, and interacting with music — as much as referring to a specific period of time and genre of musical artistry. That said, of the many reasons performers and listeners are enthusiastically embracing music performed on period instruments in an historically informed manner, there’s one thought in particular I have in mind, especially for our new and evolving ABO audience.

Great composers create music in dialogue with the resources, conditions, and boundaries they face in their time. It’s difficult to appreciate fully the expressive power and detailed nuance of that creative dialogue without trying to re-establish, to the extent possible, some of those actual historical factors. For instance, it’s hard to experience a composer pushing against limitations if at least some of them aren’t in place while the music is being performed. It’s hard to imagine the ingenious way a composer made a violin’s gut strings speak and articulate rhetorical meaning if the strings are made from an entirely different material (and the bow is of a different weight, balance, and shape). It’s hard to convey the tonal warmth of a completely wooden section of wind instruments when some of the highest among them are made of metal.

Great power, energy, nuance, and emotion can occur when music interacts vibrantly with the elements of its circumstance. Sometimes composers even argue with those elements and push on them. For instance, I used to wonder why Mozart, about a minute and thirty seconds into the first movement of his piano sonata in F (k. 332) suspended the melody in favor of several measures of the same thumping rhythm – coming seemingly out of nowhere — in a patterned series of somewhat odd chord progressions (this happens even more so toward the end of the movement). Was this a rare moment of Mozart being uninspired and just filling time?

Then I heard Malcom Bilson, live in concert, perform the work on a fortepiano from Mozart’s era. It was amazing – a completely new experience of this piece. That passage shook with energy as Mozart’s genius explored and tested the limits of the instrument, which, as it turns out, he does throughout the entire movement through contrasting melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic textures. It’s the mischievous side of Mozart showing us that he understands every detail of his fortepiano better than anyone had ever thought or imagined. And no matter how tastefully and accurately played, there’s simply no way to evoke the same excitement on a modern grand piano, because that instrument has an entirely different set of boundaries in this regard. What we hear instead are sweet, elongated sounds that melt into each other, sacrificing much of the clarity, focus, fullness, and mischief of Mozart.

To hear the same kind of exploration of possibility and limitation on the fortepiano, listen to this wonderful performance by Malcom Bilson of the Haydn Fantasia in C.

And to hear a wonderful side by side explanation of, and comparison between, a fortepiano of Mozart’s time and the modern piano, click on Robert Levin’s illuminating lecture:

This is just one of the many, many reasons that answers “Why baroque?” We’ll share more of our thoughts with you on this topic over the next several weeks and months.

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