London-based orchestra to perform using baroque instruments

by Caela Murphy | 1/29/14 3:40pm

Can the precise, unwavering stroke of a note on a harpsichord awaken a musical past? Can it convert a modern auditorium into a royal court or the ornate halls of a cathedral? Tomorrow night, conductor Harry Bicket and the members of the English Concert chamber orchestra will take on this task.

The baroque and classical orchestra subscribes to the historically informed performance which aims to more accurately perform music of the past by adopting the methods and materials of musicians of previous eras. Rejecting developments to symphony orchestras that allow instruments to be played louder, faster and at a wider range of keys, the English Concert plays on instruments closely resembling those played during the 17th and 18th centuries.

“What we try to do is to recreate as best as we can what it sounded like at the original time,” Bicket said.

Period performance musicians research the playing techniques employed by past artists, like tuning and rhythm. Music professor William Summers, a historical musicologist, said that he considers this a “respectful” approach to performing music.

“It’s a really interesting set of opportunities to put all of this careful learning into practice and turn it back into sounds that are clearly not the kind of sounds that the Dartmouth symphony would make,” Summers said.

Early musicians often did not fully write out the notes for their pieces, so performers were expected to improvise, Summers said. As a result, historically informed performances are somewhat improvised.

The modern movement emerged from a long tradition of study that originated in the 19th century.

“They wanted to try to understand why people understood music the way they did, why they composed the way they did and what the cultural circumstances were that brought them to that,” Summers said.

This approach took shape in the 1960s and 1970s, and Trevor Pinnock, founder of the English Concert, was one of the technique’s leaders, Summers said.

The performance tomorrow night will feature Bach’s “Orchestral Suite No. 2” and “Concerto for Oboe d’Amore,” along with Rameau’s “Suite from Les Boreades,” Telemann’s “Suite in D Major” and “Trumpet Concerto in D Major.” In addition to representing artists from diverse backgrounds, the selections encompass various baroque-era instruments, highlighting individual musicians throughout each piece.

“It’s very much a chamber orchestra,” Bicket said. “All our players are soloists in their own right.”

The English Concert will host an informal discussion after the performance. Bicket said he expects people will want to learn about the original instruments that they perform with.

“Maybe people will be interested in the instruments that we’re playing, how they differ from their modern counterparts and what the advantages to playing these instruments are as well as the difficulties,” Bicket said.

Summers said he plans to go into the concert with an open mind and hopes that the discussion will be driven by audience members’ initial reactions to the music.

The group hopes to connect with young, aspiring musicians through the performance, Bicket said.

“Like any orchestra, we rely on reaching out to younger people, not just audiences but also potentially people who might be interested in studying these instruments and possibly playing them,” Bicket said.

Hopkins Center classical music student relations advisor Richard Fu ’13 said he encourages students to attend the performance and others like it, noting that events like these become much more expensive and less accessible for students once they graduate.

He added that the period performance movement is controversial. Critics question the possibility of replicating music of the past in light of radically different modern performance conditions, like larger concert halls.

“Based on a lot of study and research, we try to recreate the way that music was played in the 16th and 17th centuries, but up to certain point you can only guess,” Fu said. “It’s a big gray area, and it’s interesting to see how each performer approaches that issue.”

Despite these technical challenges, the music performed tonight remains enduring, Fu said.

“The reason classical music has survived and will continue to survive is because something about it — even though it’s very abstract — makes it sound like it’s still very much alive when you’re listening to it,” Fu said. “It doesn’t go out of fashion.”

The English Concert will perform in Spaulding Auditorium at 8 p.m. tomorrow.