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American Classical Orchestra
Orchestra of the Old Fairfield Academy (Period-instrument Orchestra)

Founded: 1985 - Fairfield, Connecticut, USA, as Orchestra of the Old Fairfield Academy
Re-named: 1999 - as American Classical Orchestra

The American Classical Orchestra (= ACO) is devoted to preserving and performing the repertoire of 17th- to 19th-century composers, playing the works on original or reproduced period instruments. The musicians use historic performance practice techniques and pass these skills down to future generations through concert performances and educational programs. In recognition of this work, the ACO has been awarded grants by the National Endowment for the Arts. Originally founded in 1985 by Music Director Thomas C. Crawford as the Orchestra of the Old Fairfield Academy (Connecticu), in 1999 the orchestra's name was changed to the American Classical Orchestra.

The orchestra has garnered both critical and popular recognition through its concert appearances, including those on the Lincoln Center Great Performers Series and at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it performed a musical program in collaboration with an exhibition entitled "Art and the Empire City: New York, 1825-1861."

Among the works recorded by the ACO are the complete wind concerti by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, which feature its principal players as soloists, and Mozart's Symphony No. 14, K. 144 and Piano Concerti, K. 107, Volume II, with fortepianist Malcolm Bilson. A recording of Baroque oboe concerti with oboist Marc Schachman was released on the Centaur label this spring. In addition to Malcolm Bilson, among the instrumental soloists who have collaborated with the American Classical Orchestra are fortepianist Robert Levin, violinist Stephanie Chase, flutist Sandra Miller, violist David Miller, hornist RJ Kelley, and oboist Marc Schachman. In September 2009, Vladimir Feltsman performed Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 27 as fortepiano soloist with the orchestra in a concert presented at Lincoln Center. Concert ACO performing at the New York Yacht Club.

The American Classical Orchestra attempts to recreate the sounds an audience might have heard during the 17th to 19th centuries. Historical instruments, with their softer and more transparent, but sometimes edgier tone, contribute a delicacy to gentler compositions and a pungent bite to stronger works, which is not possible with modern instruments. Instruments used by our ensemble are historic, or are copies of those that were unaltered and “original.”

By using period instruments, the ACO can, in the 21st century, recreate the composer's masterworks as intended, so that modern audiences experience them much closer to the way in which they were originally heard.

The composers of these great works lived in a sound world quite different from that of modern times. For instance, when listening to the genius of Bach, we can now hear that he specifically designed his compositions for the nuances of Baroque instruments. Without period instruments and, therefore, without these nuances, the music is something entirely different and inextricable from its proper medium. For example, the 'imperfections' of the wooden flute become attributes when heard in an 18th century context, and its organic sound brings out the intimate timbre of the music.

String Instruments

Baroque and classical string instruments had different physical characteristics from their modern counterparts. The fingerboards were laid flatter to the neck, the bridge smaller, and the strings made of natural gut. The tone of a gut string has an “envelope” which allows the other parts of a multi-voice composition to be heard. This is why music played on period instruments sounds so clear when compared with modern instruments. The disadvantages of these string instruments is that they do not project as loudly in today’s larger concert halls. This is why the ACO performs in smaller, more intimate venues. The post World War I change to all-metal strings allowed instruments to play louder and to be tuned only once for a performance. But metal strings also increased tension on the instrument and that required them to be altered to accommodate this tension. This means that virtually every Stradivarius in the world was altered significantly on the assumption that their meticulous craftsmanship was somehow lacking for modern halls and ears. However, closer inspection of the repertoire of the time has revealed that re-tooling great string instruments has damaged not only the objects themselves, but also affected our appreciation of the music for which they were made. By using period string instruments with gut strings, ACO players restore the magnificence of the originally-produced sound.


The horns and trumpets occupy a unique place in orchestral history in that they were added to the ensemble relatively late. They were originally used as hunting and ceremonial instruments. Because they did not have valves, the brass instruments had a limited range and flexibility. The tubing was of a smaller scale and the mouthpiece and armature required considerable skill. The role these instruments played took on a percussive function because of the nature of attack and quick decay of sound, which is very different from the sustained resonance of today’s brass instruments.


The heads of these drums were made of animal skin until the mid-20th century. The modern timpani use plastic heads and have a much brighter and faster sound, which fades slowly. Conversely, early timpani provide the full musical effect of drums in the orchestra without covering the other instruments immediately after the stroke of the mallet.


The woodwind family of the classical orchestra is a ‘choir’, a ‘harmony’ of like instruments designed to work and blend together. The flutes are made of wood, not metal. The oboe bore and design emphasize a certain register, such that it is featured differently in Classical period works by L.v. Beethoven or Mozart than it is heard in baroque or later works. The clarinet is warm and ‘smaller’ than a modern clarinet. The bassoons have a conical bore and larger double reed that produce a sound capable of solo passages yet blends perfectly with the cellos and basses. All of the woodwinds have far fewer keys than modern instruments, and thus the notes of the scale must be produced by cross or forked fingerings. Certain notes are therefore covered and others are more open sounding. These colorations are what give these period instruments their beauty and individuality,and their sound was well known and skillfully employed by the great composers. Modern instruments are incapable of such colorations and feature homogeneity of sound across the instrument.

More Photos

Source: American Classical Orchestra Website
Contributed by
Aryeh Oron (December 2013)

Thomas C. Crawford: Short Biography | American Classical Orchestra | Recordings of Vocal Works

Links to other Sites

American Classical Orchestra (Official Website)


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