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Performance of Bach’s Vocal Works

General Discussions - Part 11

 

 

Continue from Part 10

Bradley Lehman wrote (December 1, 2004):
David Sherr wrote: < Period instruments make one sound each--no color, no variety, no flexibility, limited dynamic range, limited articulations. If that's enough for you, you're really lucky, because you'll never be disappointed. >
Perhaps such sarcasm and exaggeration is too subtle for the room? There are avid fans of recordings and concerts in which these instruments are used. There are also some specialists in playing and teaching these period instruments, right here on this discussion list. We wouldn't be involved in such things unless we believe it serves the music brilliantly.

So, what's the purpose of such provocation?

Uri Golomb wrote (December 1, 2004):
David Sherr wrote: << Period instruments make one sound each--no color, no variety, no flexibility, limited dynamic range, limited articulations. If that's enough for you, you're really lucky, because you'll never be disappointed. >>
Bradley Lehman wrote: < Perhaps such sarcasm and exaggeration is too subtle for the room? >
Coming from Brad, this is a surprisingly mild response. "Exaggeration" suggests there is a grain of truth in the accusation... Which there simply isn't. For what it's worth, period instrument performances are very frequently more flexible than many of their modern instrument counterparts (there are many examples in Bach cantatas): the range of articulation is very frequently wider, and often enough so is the range of colours and even dynamics. This is largely because of the players, not the instruments; but at the very least it proves that the instruments are capable of producing colourful performances. If particular period-instrument performances are as dull and uniform as David Sherr suggests, this is because of the players, not because of the instruments. Dull players are dull players, whatever instruments they use.

For a balancing view, here is a quote from the introduction to Bernard Sherman's Inside Early Music:

"It's not surprising that mainstreamers often accused the historical performers of pedantry - of "restraining any and all of the interpreter's natural urges."7

"As that shows, mainstreamer charges could be belligerent and moralistic in their own way. The historicists were accused of amateurism, and - to turn the tables - of trashing the classics. Although historical performers did sometimes take speed, lightness, or inflection to the point of mannerism, the critiques went beyond that.

[...]

"even the most sympathetic observer must admit that historical performance did have its phases of both amateurism and pedantry. Both phases, however, were necessary. Regarding amateurism, it has often been hard to make a living at historical performance, so those who tried to master it had to earn their keep doing something else. Besides, even in supportive circumstances it takes a while to master an instrument. In 1963, Nikolaus Harnoncourt's fledgling Concentus Musicus recorded the Brandenburg Concerti in ten-second takes, because the period winds could stay in tune only that long; but in 1993, John Eliot Gardiner's Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique recorded three Beethoven symphonies in live concerts, and the winds stayed in tune throughout. As for pedantry, it too was an inevitable phase. It takes time to unlearn old habits, and a longer time before new practices become ingrained. In the gap between the old habits and the new ones, musicians play pedantically. In addition, sometimes the pedantry was deliberate; a program note circa 1950 said that "Early music was a highly aristocratic art and restraint governed even the display of emotion."

In 1994, however, Clifford Bartlett writes of British Baroque playing that "what was at first a fairly stiff, somewhat puritanical approach has become much more free"; and that applies elsewhere (though not universally - medieval performers, who often have links with folk music, sounded anything but puritanical in the 1950s). I don't find much evidence for pedantry in my interviewees' playing, or in their words. "

Sherman's introduction can be found on: http://www.bsherman.org/IEMintro.htm; however, I very much recommend to members of this list to read the whole book; see my review on http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Books/Book-Authentic[Golomb].htm. The quotes I gave are from 4-5.

David Sherr wrote (December 1, 2004):
[To Bradley Lehman] No exageration. Would you listen to a harpsichord player who used one stop throughout the concert? If not, why listen to a flute or oboe player who never varies the sound? And none of them do. The purpose of "such provocation" is to counteract the destruction of works of art that goes on in those concerts. To return concerts to the spiritual events they used to be instead of places where academics offer excuses, stated or implied, as to why, in the name of "authenticity," they sound the way they do.

There are avid fans of George Bush, the war in Iraq, destruction of the environment, and rap music as well as concerts played on period instruments.

"Play from the soul, not like a trained bird," said C.P.E. Bach, who also said "the piano is a better instrument than the harpsichord or the organ because of the many ways in which the tone can be varied." See, I'm right.

David Sherr wrote (December 2, 2004):
[To Uri Golomb] The instruments are simply not capable of the qualities you seem to think you are hearing. Listen to Jim Caldwell play his baroque oboe and his modern oboe and then tell me about how the old instruments are as "flexible, colorful" etc. as the modern ones. Not even close.

Who is the Julius Baker of baroque flute players?

Bradley Lehman wrote (December 2, 2004):
Uri Golomb wrote: < For what it's worth, period instrument performances are very frequently more flexible than many of their modern instrument counterparts (there are many examples in Bach cantatas): the range of articulation is very frequently wider, and often enough so is the range of colours and even dynamics. This is largely because of the players, not the instruments; but at the very least it proves that the instruments are capable of producing colourful performances. If particular period-instrument performances are as dull and uniform as David Sherr suggests, this is because of the players, not because of the instruments. Dull players are dull players, whatever instruments they use. (...) >

And quoting Bernard Sherman:
< In 1994, however, Clifford Bartlett writes of British Baroque playing that "what was at first a fairly stiff, somewhat puritanical approach has become much more free"; and that applies elsewhere (though not universally - medieval performers, who often have links with folk music, sounded anything but puritanical in the 1950s). I don't find much evidence for pedantry in my interviewees' playing, or in their words. " >
Well put.

Recently I was reading this preview
http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/search/s_264899.html
and two subsequent reviews
http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/pp/04299/401197.stm
http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/search/s_265460.html
from a Pittsburgh performance by Manze and the English Concert. I heard their similar concert the next day, in a different city, and I attest that there's no exaggeration in the raves by either Pittsburgh critic here. It was one of the best concerts I've ever heard (in 25+ years of concert-going) of any music, played on any instruments. The playing was vital, engaging, beautifully phrased, intensely focused to every moment. It made even the overly-familiar Mozart pieces seem entirely new and fresh, spontaneous, happening right there.

Surely there is some prominent place within "composer's intenti" for such an effect to be made, as a goal: that the music is brilliant and alive. Like listening to an excellent storyteller, eager to hear what happens next, and next, and next.

And, the notion that period instruments are inexpressive and inflexible? It's absurd. We pick our instruments (and practice them!) with the conviction that they serve the music well and appropriately. The right tools make a job easier rather than harder. And then, those tools need to be in the hands of people who know how to handle them, to get the best results from them. Same as with anything.

Bradley Lehman wrote (December 2, 2004):
David Sherr wrote: < Who is the Julius Baker of baroque flute players? >
If this question is synonymous with "Who's REALLY extraordinarily good at Baroque flute?", go buy this album for starters: http://www.glossamusic.com/catalogue/0804.htm

Bradley Lehman wrote (December 2, 2004):
David Sherr wrote: < No exageration. Would you listen to a harpsichord player who used one stop throughout the concert? >
Yes, and I've performed many such concerts myself (as a professional harpsichordist) using exactly one stop all the way through the concert. The instrument is much more expressive, in the hands of a good player, than you evidently give it credit as having. Expressivity is not about numbers of stops, but about expressive and sensitive touch (and rhythm, articulation, phrasing, tuning, flexibility...) from the player. I spend at least an hour a day, almost every day, practicing and playing through music on a single stop on the harpsichord.

< If not, why listen to a flute or oboe player who never varies the sound? And none of them do. >
Ever met a specialist in Baroque flute or Baroque oboe? Ever performed with one? Is there any chance that the players are doing all kinds of varied things that you simply haven't noticed?

< The purpose of "such provocation" is to counteract the destruction of works of art that goes on in those concerts. To return concerts to the spiritual events they used to be instead of places where academics offer excuses, stated or implied, as to why, in the name of "authenticity," they sound the way they do. >
Umm....which decade is it you believe we're living in, at the moment?

< There are avid fans of George Bush, the war in Iraq, destruction of the environment, and rap music as well as concerts played on period instruments. >
Not that all such people should be equated.

< "Play from the soul, not like a trained bird," said C.P.E. Bach, who also said "the piano is a better instrument than the harpsichord or the organ because of the many ways in which the tone can be varied." See, I'm right. >
Not right, merely arrogant and stubborn. Furthermore, CPE's favorite instrument was the clavichord, not the piano. Have you ever played one?

David Sherr wrote (December 2, 2004):
[To Bradley Lehman] I've heard Wilbert Hazelzet; coincidentally, he's the example I use to make the point that even the ones that can manipulate the instrument still are boring and unmusical. Small world, huh?

David Sherr wrote (December 2, 2004):
[To Bradley Lehman] Define "professional harpsichordist." Is that anything like school teacher with a hobby?

Joost wrote (December 2, 2004):
[To David Sherr] [The message was deleted]

Dale Gedcke wrote (December 2, 2004):
[To David Sherr] To get a different perspective, listen to the CD, The Art of the Baroque Trumpet, Vol. 1, featuring Nikilas Ekland on Baroque trumpet. Of course, Eklund is a very accomplished professional Baroque trumpet player.

Plenty of musical expression and variation in that performance!

David Sherr wrote (December 2, 2004):
[To Joost] [The message was deleted]

Garbriel Jackson wrote (December 2, 2004):
[To David Sherr] [The message was deleted]

Bradley Lehman wrote (December 2, 2004):
David Sherr wrote: < Define "professional harpsichordist." Is that anything like school teacher with a hobby? >
No, it's not. What is it you want played in concert for a suitable chunk of money? A nice evening of Couperin and Scarlatti? Bull's "Walsingham" and some Byrd and Farnaby? Frescobaldi and Froberger? An hour of WTC? All of the Art of Fugue? "Israel in Egypt" or the St Matthew from figured bass? Half a dozen CPE sonatas and rondos? Double feature of the Goldbergs and the Harmonious Blacksmith variations? Suggest something and maybe we can work out a contract.

David Sherr wrote (December 2, 2004):
[To Bradley Lehman] [The message was deleted]

Bradley Lehman wrote (December 2, 2004):
[To Gabriel Jackson] [The message was deleted]

Kirk McElhearn wrote (December 2, 2004):
Brad Lehman wrote: < "We believe that musical authenticity is not merely an issue of hardware and playing technique; importantly it also involves sound and style, emulating appropriate effects in earlier music. As with any other skilled craft, the choice of tools also includes practicality, availability, and the comfort of the people using them! Accordingly, instead of bringing a _____ and a _____, we performed these sonatas with a ______."
(That is, at the time, we recorded these pieces with the instruments we had available and could play well, with strong technique and musical conviction.) Then, the program notes go on to explain the other bits of arrangement we did for the album, wherever we didn't stick with the original instrumentation of each piece in question.
Any reactions, or suggestions for improvement? >

Well, 17th and 18th century music cannot be played authentically with electric lighting - did you have candles set up around the instruments to read your scores? And was it cold, drafty, or hot and sticky (depending on the season you wanted to reproduce)? Did you use catgut strings?

:-)

John Pike wrote (December 2, 2004):
Bradley Lehman wrote: < Perhaps such sarcasm and exaggeration is too subtle for the room? There are avid fans of recordings and concerts in which these instruments are used. There are also some specialists in playing and teaching these period instruments, right here on this discussion list. We wouldn't be involved in such things unless we believe it serves the music brilliantly.
So, what's the purpose of such provocation? >
David's statement was, in fact, completely untrue. Just a complete misconception on is part. If anything, I would say the baroque violin bow lent itself to greater nuance of expression.

Bradley Lehman wrote (December 2, 2004):
[To David Sherr] [The message was deleted]

David Sherr wrote (December 2, 2004):
[To Kirk McElhearn] Bravo.

David Sherr wrote (December 2, 2004):
[To John Pike] Leopold Mozart, who wrote the standard text, On Playing the violin, complained that the baroque bow caused a "small softness" with each bow change. Did any of you ever stop to wonder why instrument makers worked so hard to improve instruments if they were so good? All my statements come directly from primary sources.

Gabriel Jackson wrote (December 2, 2004):
David Sherr wrote: "Did any of you ever stop to wonder why instrument makers worked so hard to improve instruments if they were so good?"
Why this arrogant and dismissive tone? You appear to believe that your opinion on these matters is the only one and that not only is anyone one who has other ideas wrong, but that they are in need of correction from you, as if there were errant and foolish schoolchildren who need to be corrected.

Incidentally, it is a matter of opinion whether or not the changes in instrument design were/are improvements or whether the results are simply different. Even if one believes that modern instruments are 'better' (however one defines 'better) than their 18th century equivalents, it is those 18th century instruments that bach wrote for.

Uri Golomb wrote (December 2, 2004):
David Sherr wrote: < Did any of you ever stop to wonder why instrument makers worked so hard to improve instruments if they were so good? >
Many musicians have given considerable thought to the reasons behind changes in instruments; it is both disrecpetful and ignorant to claim that they "never stopped to wonder" about this. (For two examples -- out of many! -- rethe interview with Malcolm Bilson in Sherman's Inside Early Music, where he discussed, among other things, the advantages and dis-advantages of various pianos; and Robert Levin's
discussion on the advantages of Mozart's pianos in: http://www.biu.ac.il/hu/mu/min-ad04/LevinMOZART.pdf. You don't have to agree with their views; but they have certainly given the issue considerable thought, borne out of actual experience with these instruments).

Musical style has also changed a great deal between the 18th and 19th centuries; composers in one period did not have the same demands as compsoers in another period. This certainly helps explain why the instruments changed without proving that these changes automatically count as improvements. It is quite possible -- even likely -- that Bach and Mendelssohn, for instance, had quite different ideas as to what counts as a "good" violin/flute/oboe etc. (when Mendelssohn performed Bach's music -- in his own revised and re-orchestraed versions -- he probably applied his own definitions of good instruments and good performance, rather than Bach's. If one automatically assumes that the instruments Mendelssohn had at his disposal were better than Bach's, why not also assume that his performing instructions constituted improvements upon Bach's own?).

Even at any given time, one musician's definition of a "good instrument" (or good technique, etc.) was not identical to another's; and several changes in instrumental construction (and playing/singing techniques) were celebrated by some musicians as improvements -- and deprecated as negative innovations by others.

Bradley Lehman wrote (December 2, 2004):
David Sherr wrote: < Leopold Mozart, who wrote the standard text, On Playing the violin, complained that the baroque bow caused a "small softness" with each bow change. >
What makes you think it was a "complaint" on his part? Isn't it merely a remark about general technique, and the correct handling of existing hardware, as to getting the sound to be clean and clear at the beginning and end of each stroke?

Furthermore, that L Mozart book (excellent as it is) is not the only information that matters, for string players; see also Tartini, Muffat, Quantz, Geminiani, le Blanc, Zanetti, Monteclair, Dupont, et al for additional remarks about bowing techniques, and the types of sound that were expected to issue from the various motions.

< All my statements come directly from primary sources. >
Maybe so, but your interpretations of these primary sources start from [at least] three premises that I disagree with:

- (1) that the older instruments are inferior in any way (and not merely different, for different music); and

- (2) that you [alone] have the whole picture, enough to "prove" that your foregone conclusions about inferiority are the only reasonable ones; and

- (3) that string players and other musicians in the present forum are here to be lectured by you, as to allegedly misguided values in our musicianship, and as to alleged ignorance.

David Sherr wrote (December 2, 2004):
[The message was deleted]

John Pike wrote (December 2, 2004):
[Tto Uri Golomb] Indeed.

I have 2 bows, neither of them Baroque. They are ideal for playing chamber music and concertos from Mozart onwards. I use them for Bach as well but only because I don't have a baroque bow. I have played with baroque bows before and they do offer definite advantages for earlier music, both technically and expressively. Simulating certain phrases with a modern bow can be harder work.


Hesitations

Bradley Lehman wrote (February 9, 2005):
< There is a corollary to the adage quoted by George, "He, who hesitates, is lost." The corollary is: "He, who is lost, hesitates." In the case of the missed opportunity, the latter leads to the former. >
Yeah, sometimes. But there are also people who, despite being lost, don't hesitate. They just pretend they're not lost, or may not even realize they're lost. (Example: in a recent bridge game I collected 1400 off a pair who blithely bid to an impossible contract that went down five.)

Then there's also the deliberate hesitation in musical interpretation known as "agogic accent"...delaying a note ever so slightly, on purpose, to give the effect of it being louder or at least more important. That's a bread-and-butter technique on harpsichord and organ. It's a vocal technique, too, putting the vowel and/or consonants slightly after (or before) the beat to give particular emphasis to a note. I wish I'd hear more of it in recordings of the Bach vocal works, with the singers in arias being more free to drape things more casually across the beat, ahead of or behind it. The accompaniment stays steady, while the soloist bends time tastefully. This generally isn't notated in the score; it's one of those tasteful normal parts of expressive performance practice that come from training, research, and experience.

Doug Cowling wrote (February 9, 2005):
Bradley Lehman wrote: < I wish I'd hear more of it in recordings of the Bach vocal works, with the singers in arias being more free to drape things more casually across the beat, ahead of or behind it. >
It's interesting that in the 60's there was a reaction to Romantic articulation and ritard effects and we got the sewing-machine approach of Richter. A necessary corrective I suppose but whereas there has been a recovery of the tools of expressiveness among instrumentalists, there is still too much robotic singing. I always despair when I hear a singer perform "Aus Liebe" from the SMP (BWV 244) strictly. I would love to hear the blood dripping in a constant tempo in the oboes while the flute and voice varied their tempos with real abandon. They might even embellish with vibrato (gasp!)

Dale Gedcke wrote (February 9, 2005):
Bradley Lehman wrote: "Then there's also the deliberate hesitation in musical interpretation known as "agogic accent"...delaying a note ever so slightly, on purpose, to give the effect of it being louder or at least more important. That's a bread-and-butter technique on harpsichord and organ. It's a vocal technique, too, putting the vowel and/or consonants slightly after (or before) the beat to give particular emphasis to a note."
MY COMMENT:

Delaying entry on a note is a technique that has been formalized in jazz. The entry to a long note occurs on the offbeat. This creates anticipation and special emphasis, often called a "stab". That's a popular idiom of big band music from the 20s and 30s.

Very effective!

I say "formalized", because that delay is often purposely written into the score for a chorus of instruments, rather than being an interpretation allowed by an individual player. Although, the latter happens for solo improvisation in small ensembles.

Bradley Lehman wrote (February 9, 2005):
[To Doug Cowling] I have a guest-lecture that I do where I present this topic of singing (or playing) tastefully off the beat. And my favorite example to start off with, since "everybody already knows it", is to play the recording of Julie Andrews from the soundtrack of "The Sound of Music", opening scene. Her metric placement is exquisite, varying it as the song goes along. (But we don't even think about it unless we're instructed to listen for it specifically.)

From there, the lecture goes on to some examples variously from Bing and Frank and Barbra and Willie [Nelson], and thence to some live illustrations from Baroque repertoire played on the keyboard. There's even some of the 17th century French keyboard repertoire, and into the 18th, where this effect is specifically notated.

This is such a normal thing for harpsichord and organ, doing some of it subtly in just about every musical phrase everywhere. In all the contrapuntal music I work on (for example, one of the Clavieruebung III settings this morning...) I go through and mark which notes in the score would be especially good candidates to be agogically accented in various ways (with timing and articulation). Then I practice to integrate that into the flow where the other voices of the texture are more strictly in time. Basic expression. It's all from singing, ultimately, getting the linear motion to be like it would/should be sung in that 17th/18th century manner of rhythmic treatment.

Agreed, "Aus Liebe" would be a terrific place to hear more of this bending
from the singer and flautist. Much more.

There should be a "Classical Barbra 2" sequel album...........

Santu De Silva wrote (February 10, 2005):
Dale Gedcke wrote: "Delaying entry on a note is a technique that has been formalized in jazz. The entry to a long note occurs on the offbeat. This creates anticipation and special emphasis, often called a 'stab'. That's a popular idiom of big band music from the 20s and 30s."
There's a very extreme instance of such a thing, namely in movement 6 of Brahm's Deutche Requiem. It is at the point where the phrase "letzen Posaunen" is interrupted by the brass. It's as if the last trumpet will sound before you're ready for it.

N.B. I intend to be in charge of the Last Trumpet, and I will make sure that this overeagerness on the part of the trumpets does not actually happen at the end of time. We have to make sure that things are done properly . . .

Mike Mannix wrote (February 10, 2005):
Isnt this technique a major featue of the first movement of the Italian Concerto?

Peter Smaill wrote (February 10, 2005):
Doug Cowling wrote: "I always despair when I hear a singer perform "Aus Liebe" from the SMP (BWV 244) strictly. I would love to hear the blood dripping in a constant tempo in the oboes while the flute and voice varied their tempos with real abandon. They might even embellish with vibrato (gasp!)"
I wonder how many of us , with shelves crammed with Herreweghe, Harnoncourt, JEG, and Suzuki, sometimes feel as Doug does about ceertain arias. For me, the clinching point was Grace Bumbry singing "Erbarme dich .. " from the SMP (BWV 244) at the Edinburgh International Festival in (?) 1980.

More recently, the soprano Dawn Upshaw ("Angels Hide Their Faces", (Nonesuch)) achieves an exquisite balance of limited vibrato, rubato and ritardando in the penultimate section of BWV 199, the famous "Tief Gebuckt".

The ability of a modern performance style to disclose what the musicologist Alec Robertson described as the unexpected romanticism of Bach, often a product of the baroque technique of affekt, may not appeal to the purists. But if the listener response to the engagement of the voice with the emotion behind the words is authentic, is it not a valid interpretation nonetheless? Is not the tension between subjective emotional content and the objectively disciplined structural forms in the Cantatas not a primary reason for their appeal?

John Reese wrote (February 10, 2005):
< N.B. I intend to be in charge of the Last Trumpet, and I will make sure that this overeagerness on the part of the trumpets does not actually happen at the end of time. We have to make sure that things are done properly . . . >
I had a choir director who would say, "If you come in late, it's bad. If you come in early, it's tragic..."

Santu De Silva wrote (February 10, 2005):
[To John Reese] :-D Brilliant!

Bradley Lehman wrote (February 10, 2005):
[To Santu De Silva] Especially so in the last scene of "Don Giovanni" when the big guy shows up.

Bradley Lehman wrote (February 10, 2005):
< N.B. I intend to be in charge of the Last Trumpet, and I will make sure that this overeagerness on the part of the trumpets does not actually happen at the end of time. We have to make sure that things are done properly . . . >
...and not on trombones like in the Brahms requiem, or clarinet like in the Messiaen quartet....

Adrian Horsewood wrote (February 10, 2005):
[To Bradley Lehman] ...and not on a horn, like in Mozart's version of 'Messiah'... :o)


The perils of concert performers moving around

Robert Sherman wrote (March 25, 2005):
Several list members have commented on problems from conductor and soloists moving around on the stage during Gardiner's SMP (BWV 244). My $.02 on that subject:

This past December I heard Westenburg conduct Messiah in New York. His recording is my favorite, and the concert was generally quite good. But he's very concerned that the pauses between sections be treated as meaningful parts of the music rather than as arbitrary silences. That is, some of them should be short or nonexistent. This works fine on recordings, BUT in the live performance it created real problems.

The soloists were seated fairly far out to the sides. So frequently during the ending of one section, a soloist would get up and walk a third of the way across the stage to be ready for his/her coming solo. The result was to impair the audience's concentration on the music actually being played. Very bad idea.

Additionally, Westenburg played the harpsichord himself, and that was a good hike from the podium. So we'd frequently see him conducting the chorus while turning around and working his way over to the keyboard. Most distracting. And since I could hardly hear the harpsichord, I didn't see the point of it.

Solution: Seat the soloists where they are going to sing, and hire a harpsichordist.

That being said, in the late 60's I heard Karl Richter do the SJP (BWV 245) and play the harpsichord himself. He had the keyboard quite close to the podium, and switched back and forth between conducting and keyboarding in the blink of an eye. He never turned away or backed off from the chorus while he was conducting to move toward the keyboard. You'd be sure he couldn't make it to the keyboard without missing a beat, but he did it every time. Amazing, and only minimally distracting. But still, I don't see the reason for doing it.

Martin Bendler wrote (March 25, 2005):
[To Robert Sherman] Yes, that´s a very interesting question.

Masaaki Suzuki is doing the same on his SJP-DVD. There are two hapsichords and sometimes he playes one of this, sometimes not. The other one is played by a young lady. So is there a second hapsichordist necessary? Or why is he doing this? During one aria he is conducting while sitting on his hapsichord chair.

I think Ton Koopman is doing nearly the same. Following the booklets of his Cantata recordings he is conducting, playing the organ and sometimes he is also in charge for the hapsichord if I remember that right. Busy man with three jobs to do... However I like his recordings very much. For me they are next to the Gardiner recordings (which I think are on their own level).

At Gardiner's SMP-(BWV 244) performance Howard Moody was playing both the hapsichord and the second chamber organ. That was working fine. The instruments were next to each other and for him it was easy to switch. But I think he would be just too busy if he had also to conduct the ensembles.

Does anyone have an idea why these conductors are doing this? Is it not better to have one person conducting while another person is playing the hapsichord or organ?

Cara Emily Thornton wrote (March 25, 2005):
[To Robert Sherman] I've seen a couple of other solutions to this type of problem:

Back in the days when Michael Korn was still the director of the Philadelphia Singers, he used to sometimes dispense entirely with the podium, set up a harpsichord at center stage so that he could sit facing both the keys and the choir simultaneously, and then proceed to conduct and play continuo - again, simultaneously. Their soloists, as I recall, then stood among the choir.

In my ensemble - which doesn't really have an official name yet, but is at least sometimes known as Capella Martinensis - the conductor is not a harpsichordist or organist, but a vocal soloist (i.e. yours truly), so we have worked out a rather unique arrangement to be able to see each other while performing. What happens is that we all stand/sit (depending on the nature of the instrument played) in a sort of half circle facing the audience. I am in the middle, the continuo is on my left, and the other instruments on the rig(we are an OVPP/OPPP organization). I, of course, have both hands free to conduct... :)

Doug Cowling wrote (March 25, 2005):
Cara Emily Thornton wrote: < Back in the days when Michael Korn was still the director of the Philadelphia Singers, he used to sometimes dispense entirely with the podium, set up a harpsichord at center stage so that he could sit facing both the keys and the choir simultaneously, and then proceed to conduct and play continuo - again, simultaneously. Their soloists, as I recall, then stood among the choir >
The real problem is the smothering protocol of the 19th century concert hall where the soloists must dress differently and sit on the edge of the stage far away from the choir and only peripherally in the conductor' line of vision. I was once at a SMP (BWV 244) performance in which the two orchestras were not placed separately but played as if the four violin parts were some sort of Straussian string divisi. We will also have to wait a LONG time before the soloists in a Händel orartorio will also sing the choral parts as was the pratice in Händel's time.

Robert Sherman wrote (March 25, 2005):
[To Doug Cowling] Unless you're in a very small hall, which is usually infeasible for world-class performers because there's not enough money in it, you need to have the soloists way up front or they won't be heard well. (And I'd bet the performance would be improved by putting the chorus in front of the orchestra. The orch would have to be on very high risers, but why not?)

But regarding putting the soloists amongst the chorus, listen to the finale of Rilling's BWV 21. He begins the final chorus sung by the soloists, then brings the chorus in but you can still hear the soloists above the chorus now and then. The soloists aren't big names, but they sing their hearts out and this is the most thrilling Bach I've heard anywhere. The trumpets are magnificent too.

Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote (March 25, 2005):
Westenburg

Robert Sherman wrote: < Additionally, Westenburg played the harpsichord himself, and that was a good hike from the podium. So we'd frequently see him conducting the chorus while turning around and working his way over to the keyboard. Most distracting. And since I could hardly hear the harpsichord, I didn't see the point of it. >
What you did not tell us is where this occurred. I am assuming Avery Fischer Hall.

When the great Westenburg gave his Bach, Händel, and everything else with his Musica Sacra in The Central Presbyterian Church in the early 1970s, his conducting from the harpsichord and everything else he did with his people produced unadulterated magic. His talks before the music were always very moving and informative and totally sincere. When fame came and he moved his operation to Avery Fischer (a very different venue from the wonderful Central Presbyterian Church) all the magic departed for me. This kind of music making doesn't belong in a huge hall with bad acoustics to boot. Of course this was commercial necessity. The seats at The Central Presbyterian Church were $2.00 a piece and it had to be a total loss from a financial perspective but from an aesthetic perspective it was the greatest music making I have ever been privileged to witness. I only very recently acquired his Messiah recording. There isn't much else.

Robert Sherman wrote (March 25, 2005):
[To Yoël L. Arbeitman] Well, you're making me jealous. The Messiah I heard was in Carnegie Hall, but I would have given anything to have heard it in a smaller setting.

Bob Henderson wrote (March 30, 2005):
I agree that we have been too influenced by the podium-conductor fashion of the symphony orchestra. I attended a concert by the Academy of Ancient Music where the "conductor", Andrew Manze, strowed among the string players, all the time playing himself, as if encouraging and listening, conducting through his body language. We were close and above so we could see all this quite well. As far as I could see it worked to perfection for all concerned.

Cara Emily Thornton wrote (March 30, 2005):
[To Bob Henderson] Cool beans!!! Podiums are for gamba players to be heard better over the balcony wall (since they can't very well stroll around with their instruments). For conductors, podiums are for the birds! ;)


Is a bad performance preferable to no performance at all?

Tom Dent wrote (March 29, 2005):
How bad does a performance have to be before it is preferable that there should be no performance at all?

Does it matter if the work is well-known or little-known?

At what point should the conductor step in and stop proceedings if a musical disaster is occurring?

These thoughts spring from a Good Friday St. John Passion (BWV 245) where I was in the chorus and witnessed some agonizing (for the wrong reason) moments.

The low point was the bass arioso with viola accompaniment. Things had gone well in rehearsal. (As usual with amateurs, once through and cross your fingers.) In the evening the violas started, and continued, playing twice as fast. The singer was unsure what to do and ended up at the correct tempo but half a beat out from the continuo. The conductor apparently made some impromptu comments but they failed to produce any effect. By some means the violas continued playing throughout the entire movement although their part should have run out halfway through. After the singer had finished, they seemed to realize their mistake and played the last few bars correctly - the words 'stable door' spring to mind.

Now this isn't a viola joke, the real problem was the conductor. He did not stop the piece, he didn't try again, he didn't apologise, he acted as if nothing had happened. What were the audience supposed to think? That Bach wrote such nonsensical cacophony?

I don't know how anyone could allow such a travesty to happen. I may well leave the choir if that is their attitude. Or at least hope they do works which I don't care so much about.

Doug Cowling wrote (March 29, 2005):
Tom Dent wrote: < How bad does a performance have to be before it is preferable that there should be no performance at all? >
I was once at a performance of the Ninth Symphony. In the final movement, the tenor soloist came in a bar too early and the conductor either didn't notice it or was incapable of correcting the mistake. Neither did he appear to realize that the panic-stricken choir was about to enter. At that moment, the chorus-master rose in the audience and brought the choir in correctly. High drama indeed!

Dale Gedcke wrote (March 29, 2005):
Tom Dent wrote: "The low point was the bass arioso with viola accompaniment. Things had gone well in rehearsal. (As usual with amateurs, once through and cross your fingers.) In the evening the violas started, and continued, playing twice as fast. The singer was unsure what to do and ended up at the correct tempo but half a beat out from the continuo. The conductor apparently made some impromptu comments but they failed to produce any effect. By some means the violas continued playing throughout the entire movement although their part should have run out halfway through. After the singer had finished, they seemed to realize their mistake and played the last few bars correctly - the words 'stable door' spring to mind."
MY COMMENTS:

In my opinion as a practicing amateur musician, the responsibility for the fiasco lies with the viola players. It is far easier for an individual player to correct his/her mistake than it is for the conductor to bring the rest of the orchestra into synchronism with the mistaken player. The general rule of thumb for a concert is, "If you are not sure of what you are about to play, don't play it." The second rule is, "If you find yourself out of sync with the rest of the orchestra, find where everyone else is playing before you come back in." It sounds like the viola players were not experienced enough to even notice they were out of step. Wow! That is a pretty basic skill that one expects musicians to have.

Eric Bergerud wrote (March 30, 2005):
[To Dale Gedcke] On this modest point I thimy views are as good as any living creature. I suppose there is a point where music becomes too complicated for the individual or group involved. That said, live music is central to what we think of as art in our world. It's much more important than local theater because music has such an obvious alternative - the professionally produced and recorded CD. The local groups in Minneapolis and San Francisco draw good audiences indeed because the overall experience is different and in many ways superior to recorded performance. (I suspect that this situation is common.) Obviously I yield the right to practicing musicians to expose villains and anoint heros in their field. Yet if anyone doubts the value of what they're doing, please come to California because we need a lot more live Bach here than is available.

Cara Emily Thornton wrote (March 30, 2005):
[To Eric Bergerud] Is there any place in California (or anywhere else for that matter) for a Polish OVPP/OPPP ensemble that is half Baroque (strings) and half modern (winds)? ;)

John Pike wrote (March 30, 2005):
[To Tom Dent] I once remember doing a performance of one of Dowland's "Lacrimae" during a communion at our church. The conductor started conducting at a speed somewhere between what we had done at rehearsal and double speed. Some picked it up at the faster speed, some of us at half the conducted speed, thinking he was conducting quavers. The result was total cacophany, far more Lacrimae and Stockhausen than Dowland had anticipated. Still, several members of the congregation, not terribly musical, seemed to enjoy it enough! This was DEFINITELY one of those occasions where we should have stopped, discussed and started again. I have sat through performances where it would have been better never to have started. The performers were so obviously disastrously under-rehearsed.

John Pike wrote (March 30, 2005):
[To Doug Cowling] Sounds fairly similar to the first performance! Wasn't Beethoven (conducting) several bars out from the rest of the performers?

John Pike wrote (March 30, 2005):
[To Dale Gedcke] I remember a professional performance of Brandenburg 3 where the 3rd violinist lost his place in the first movement. He went bright red, and the other 2 violinists I think were trying to help him find his place, but this brought the fiasco to everyone's attention. That was bad enough, but then the same thing happened in the last movement!!

Dale Gedcke wrote (March 30, 2005):
RE: Eric's appended comment on live music:

[To Eric Bergerud] The competition of live versus recorded music is an issue that J. S. Bach did not have to deal with in his lifetime.

Several circumstances arise today.

I find it convenient and inexpensive to buy CDs of the really good music I want to listen to in the comfort of my home. This runs the gammut from Baroque through jazz. My wife prefers classical singers to instrumental music. So, I get to listen to her CDs as well, and I enjoy her choice of music.

Occasionally, I find the time and the money to go to a live performance. But the much greater expense, and the travelling to and from the perfomance on a particular day at a spcific time limit the frequency. Two tickets to a Koxville Symphony performance cost $66 to $90. A CD costs circa $13 and one can listen to it many times for that price.

I get the majority of my live music enjoyment from playing in a concert band and a community orchestra. Both are non-paying gigs. But, this type of organization does provide live entertainment for a negligible cost to the communities, because admission is free (however donations are accepted).

With all-volunteer orchestras and bands, you may not get as excellent a quality of musicianship as you can hear by paying to attend a professional performance. But, it fills a need. I find that the kinds of disasterous slip-ups mentioned previously under this topic don't happen very often in these volunteer organizations. But, that is normally something that you don't hear in CDs, because the passage is re-recorded if the gaff is patently noticeable.

On the other hand, I am sure many can identify recordings where a slight error made it all the way through to public distribution.

Ludwig wrote (March 30, 2005):
[To John Pike] As most people know Beethoven was deaf (probally from his love of firearms--the most simply explanation).

On more than one occaision Beethoven was seen flinging his arms around when the Orchestra was making no sound or had just finished the piece--or at least the anecdotes go.

Tom Dent wrote (March 30, 2005):
[To Dale Gedcke] ... Actually, they were perfectly synchronized, since they played exactly twice as fast as the rest of the ensemble. However, the harmonic effect became unbearable after a few bars. By that time it was very difficult to calculate how far ahead they were. If you add this to the fact that the singer was also out of sync, there was no option but to start again. So yes, the violas were the villains, but the conductor was a co-conspirator after the fact.

Eric Bergerud wrote (March 31, 2005):
[To Dale Gedcke] The last time I was in a tux I got married (that would be 1968 CE). So, can't say that I shell out big bucks very often to go "network" with the San Francisco elites at the opera or the symphony where the leading ladies of society ogle Michael Tilson Thomas (known locally as "MTT." I don't even think his Mahler is that good, but then I don't Mahler that much any more.) So I'm with Dale. I listen to the University of California symphony and a number of local "semi-pro" groups. (When the American Bach Soloists decide to actually play Bach cantatas - the task they were created to do - I go. But the ABS has very reasonable ticket prices, so double the fun. And if someone like Gardiner comes to Berkeley, heck with the bank book.)

Of course recorded music is a miracle in its way. One of the few genuinely good things about our century. But people supporting the local band are following a long tradition. In the 18th century there were, we think, a very large number of what could be considered professional musicians relative to the population. And heaven knows how many dedicated amateurs. It was the only music available after all. And I bet there were bloopers by the bucket then as now. But as a listener, I don't complain. Can't recall ever having attended a concert that didn't have a few wonderful moments. They're worth a couple or three sour notes.

John Reese wrote (April 1, 2005):
Ludwig wrote: < As most people know Beethoven was deaf (probally from his love of firearms--the most simply explanation). >
A recent analysis of Beethoven's hair showed that he went deaf, and eventually died, from massive lead poisoning.

John Reese wrote (April 1, 2005):
[To John Pike] When I sang in the chorus of Brahm's German Requiem a couple of decades ago, the soprano soloist was working her way through the sixth movement. She got to the part where she was to sing a sustained high A, and the tenors (of which I was one) were to come in on the A an octave below. She made things a little difficult for us by singing the A a half tone flat...

Stephen Benson wrote (April 1, 2005):
John Reese wrote: < A recent analysis of Beethoven's hair showed that he went deaf, and eventually died, from massive lead poisoning. >
A better choice of terms here would have been "suggested" rather than "showed. As Lewis Lockwood, probably the most widely respected current Beethoven scholar, explains in his 2003 biography of Beethoven:

"The most recent effort to determine the causes of his ill health have centered on the analysis of strands of hair that were apparently removed from Beethoven's lifeless body by Ferdinand Hiller; see Russell Martin, Beethoven's Hair (New York, 2000). Preliminary tests of these strands seem to have indicated unusually high levels of lead, suggesting the possibility of lead poisoning. As Martin observes, it remains to be seen whether the laboratory tests that produced these results may be corroborated by DNA comparison with bone remains, and for now the entire question of lead poisoning must be left open. I am grateful to Dr. Raymond Firestone forsharing with me his views on the lead-poisoning hypothesis based on the analysis described in Martin's book. Many further questions would have to be resolved in order to determine the validity of the entire lead-poisoning hypothesis." (Lewis Lockwood, Beethoven: The Music and the Life, p.513 fn#30)

Cara Emily Thornton wrote (April 1, 2005):
[To John Reese, regarding his 2nd messahe above] Eeeek!!!!!!!!!



Continue on Part 12


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