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Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society takes the idea of the orchestra all the way back to its historically informed roots.
Listen to “Amen” from Handel’s “Messiah.”
ON A RECENT Friday evening at Symphony Hall in Boston, the program included an orchestral suite by Johann Sebastian Bach; Vivaldi’s triumphant “Gloria”; and the “Magnificat,” a 1749 masterpiece by the younger Bach (Carl Philipp Emanuel). Though I’d heard each of them many times before, this time they were hitting differently, brimming with life and sounding uncannily close. Normally, I’d sink into the creaky seats of this storied hall to hear the gleaming sonics of the Boston Symphony Orchestra — the very model of a modern major orchestra. On this night, however, the stage belonged to the Symphony’s other longtime tenants, the nation’s premiere period-instrument orchestra, the Handel and Haydn Society.
That “premiere” part is no joke: H+H — as they are affectionately referred to around these parts — is in the midst of its 207th consecutive season. It sounded its inaugural notes in 1815, back when the classics were the hits. Today, H+H stands as the longest continuously running performing arts organization in the country. The orchestra has held true to its musical roots, specializing in “historically informed performance” — an approach that, through a combination of rigorous research and original instruments, strives to recreate as closely as possible the sound and spirit intended by early composers and experienced by their awestruck audiences. (Emphasis on the “awe.”)
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Imagine the difference between the high-resolution sheen of a 4K television screen and the toothy texture of an oil painting and you’ll have a rough sense of the difference between a modern orchestra and a period-instrument ensemble. The clarity of sound, the virtuosity of the performers, and the ingenuity of the composers are common to both. What’s different, to the core, is the feel of a Baroque orchestra: the energy coursing through the music, its physical intensity, its bodily presence. Thus, a well-worn piece like the “Magnificat” sounds newly suffused with color, nuance, and detail. The gestures of the musicians feel rendered with the hand-hewn tenderness and texture of a virtuoso painter’s brushstroke. There’s an increased human element ever present in its movement — an allowance for imperfection that feeds the flame of the music like a brisk influx of fresh air.
“One of the first things I said to the orchestra when I started was, ‘Look, I want you to be much more physical with your playing. You can’t just sit in your seat and be still,’” conductor and outgoing artistic director Harry Christophers tells me in a phone interview. “Not every period orchestra will play in a physical way, but our approach is one of really getting into the emotional depths of the music. It’s not just playing the notes.”
This season, Christophers will conclude his 13-year tenure leading H+H. As founder and conductor of the British choir and period-instrument ensemble the Sixteen, Christophers’ career has been defined not just by the revival of Baroque music, but its resuscitation. In his hands, Baroque music sounds as vital as it must have when it first appeared on the page.
While the music H+H plays is several centuries old, the pursuit of historically informed performance is, in classical terms, still relatively young. Christophers recalls first hearing the great conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner bring Monteverdi’s “Vespers” to life at the start of the resurgence in the early 1970s. He found himself dazzling at sounds made by instruments he’d never encountered, from the warm woody call of an early cornet to the honeyed tone of the Baroque trumpet to the singular grain of strings strung in the old style — not from wire but gut (i.e., sheep intestine).
“Bit by bit, we started realizing that the instruments that Bach, Handel, Vivaldi were using were so, so different from those of the modern day,” Christophers says. “And from there it just escalated.” He recalls the early days of this Baroque resurgence as something of a “god-awful racket,” as musicians had no maps to navigate the intricacies of brass instruments with no valves or flutes bearing the individual wonk of the wood from which they were carved. Over the last few decades, however, this dogged pursuit of primitive purity has evolved into its own realm of expertise. Today’s Baroque ensembles feature some of the finest talents in the classical world — presumably then or now.
Imagine the difference between the high-resolution sheen of a 4K television screen and the toothy texture of an oil painting and you’ll have a rough sense of the difference between a modern orchestra and a period-instrument ensemble.
Aisslinn Nosky has been concertmaster of H+H since 2011. She started playing violin at the age of three and a half but only encountered period instruments as an undergrad at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music. Nosky found herself swiftly transfixed by the variations of sound made available by the Baroque violin and drawn to its idiosyncrasies — its shorter bow, its more reticent strings. More than anything, she was attracted to the infectious energy that seemed to animate the playing.
“I remember noticing how freely the musicians played on Baroque instruments,” Nosky says. “Dance music was incredibly popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and it struck me that the orchestra was doing a kind of dance.”
Nosky’s interest widened into what she describes as “an endless and constantly fascinating rabbit hole” of discovery. She fell in love with not-quite-new composers (Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber and Georg Philipp Telemann, for instance, whom she considers unfairly underrated), and she had a string of committed relationships with a series of increasingly older (and more valuable) instruments. Today she plays a violin made in 1746 by the Spanish luthier Salvatore Bofill. It’s maple and spruce like most violins, but it hails from a country less known at the time for violins than, say, Italy — the home of more recognizable names like Stradivarius and Guarneri. Nosky credits the unique sound of her violin, in part, to the unusual terroirs of its provenance. Other than that, she doesn’t know much about it — it’s a stranger in her house.
“One of the interesting things about having an old antique is that this instrument has been played since it was made hundreds of years ago,” says Nosky. “I have no idea who those people were that held it in their hands and played it. I don’t even know where. I think about that a lot; it fascinates me.”
In the same way period instruments create a lineage of players over hundreds of years, they can also bridge the gap between players and the composers whose arcane markings they must interpret. Flutist, composer, and singer Emi Ferguson splits her time playing with H+H as well as performing with dedicated contemporary ensembles (like the American Modern Opera Company). In doing so she’s found less of a gap than one might expect between the two.
‘There’s not one kind of beauty, there’s not one right way of making music.’
“They really inform each other,” says Ferguson. “What’s more is that there are a lot of composers working today who are really interested in color and texture in a way that Baroque composers were. On original instruments, we’re able to uncover these Technicolor worlds of sound.”
Flutes are one of the oldest known instruments, appearing in some form or another in every culture over the course of many millennia. The flute most familiar to contemporary listeners — the shiny one with the buttons — only appeared in 1847, when Bavarian flutist, composer, and goldsmith Theobald Boehm devised the first iteration of the valved concert flute. Before Boehm, Baroque flutes were crafted in several shapes and sizes to accommodate different keys. And the lack of valves meant different notes sounded with different intensities on different flutes. Moreover, intonations often differed between one location and another in Baroque times — i.e., the “A” of one church organ might not be the “A” of the church in the next village.
These seeming limitations struck Ferguson as opportunities to explore undiscovered colors, as well as a chance to get closer to the music she loves. “There’s not one kind of beauty, there’s not one right way of making music,” she says. “There’s this idea of a perfect even sound that has only developed over the past 150 years. But when people hear the Baroque flute, it gets us back to that more primal flute — it hits people in a different way.”
Cellist Guy Fishman first heard Baroque music from the tapes of Vivaldi and Cherubini his teacher would play at practice. He also recalls the 1991 French film “Tous les matins du monde,” ostensibly a chronicle of the relationship between the late Baroque French composer Marin Marais and his mentor Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe, but to Fishman, it’s all about the sound of the viola da gamba (imagine a bowed lute). A recording of Dutch cellist Anner Bylsma playing his arrangements of Bach also played a formative role. Fishman makes clear his love for modern orchestras but also notes clear differences in how they operate.
Hearing Baroque music performed the way it was meant to be heard collapses the insurmountable distance between eras — it feels like a form of time travel.
“It’s sort of like a machine,” he says. “There’s a very clear hierarchy in a modern orchestra: there’s the conductor, there’s the concertmaster, there are the section principals,” he says. “The early music movement very much came out of the countercultural ’60s. You can go back and find LP covers of Baroque players with huge beards and psychedelic shirts. This is where it came from; they were anti-establishment orchestras.”
Fishman sees the smaller forces required to play a symphony by an early classical composer like Joseph Haydn as more akin to large-scale chamber music than to the stage-stuffing symphonies of a relative modernist like Gustav Mahler. And this increased intimacy, he says, provides the opportunity for more communication across the orchestra, more elasticity in the sound, more excitement in the experience.
“Sometimes our conductors will be a little bit more hands-off and ask us to fill that void with our own physicality in a way that a modern orchestra is not asked to do,” he says. “[In a modern orchestra] there are too many people onstage for everybody to move around. You follow the leader. Unity is what you’re going for.”
And while H+H isn’t a place for players to go out on their own musical limbs, the orchestra does put a premium on personal expression, on an engagement with the music that bears more weight than the paper of the score. “There’s a sense of mission about it, which I think you’re more likely to find with an early group,” Fishman says. “So even though there are fewer people on stage, and even though they are using instruments that are said to be softer than their modern, improved counterparts, they are in general giving more than you might find in a larger modern orchestra.”
For the listener, especially those new or novice to classical music, the payoff of a period orchestra goes well beyond the revelation of obscure sonic details or esoteric insight into long-gone composers. Hearing Baroque music performed the way it was meant to be heard collapses the insurmountable distance between eras — it feels like a form of time travel. But historically informed performance can also decrease the distance between listeners and this music in another way. For those who’ve ever felt out of their element in the concert hall, alienated by the ballyhooed complexity of classical music or put off by the protocols of conduct it quietly enforces, Baroque music can offer a liberating way out of the expectations of classical music and a beguiling way into its beauties.
“The whole nature of the concert hall for many people is a stumbling block,” says Christophers. “People feel like they can’t relax and be themselves. I think we as classical musicians have been culprits for far too many years, in the sense that we just sit there on stage. We need to be communicating with the people at the back of the hall.”
For the musicians of the Handel and Haydn Society, the most important thing to preserve about this extremely old music is its potential to sound brand new.
“I believe that this music is a living thing,” says Nosky. “I don’t have any idea if what we’re doing sounds anything like what Vivaldi might have wanted. I may be totally wrong. But it’s incredibly fun to keep trying.”
Don’t let the name fool you: the Handel & Haydn Society goes well beyond the work of its namesake composers. Specifically, the orchestra has delved deep into Mozart, and its new recording of violin concertos — performed by concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky — is a great way to get up close and personal with the orchestra, not to mention Wolfgang.
H+H cellist Guy Fishman is featured on this collection of Vivaldi Cello Concertos, each a small marvel of Baroque architecture — especially the F Major, which finds Fishman in top form and the textures of the orchestra in high detail.
Not many of us have great associations with the recorder — for students and parents alike, this woodwind of the ages (which dates back to the late 1300s) can feel like an instrument of torture. Once you hear what German Baroque master Georg Philipp Telemann made of it in his exquisite concertos for recorder, here played by Dan Laurin and the Polish Baroque orchestra Arte dei Suonatori, you may change your tune.
For a sample of the kind of music that launched the historically informed performance movement, it’s hard to imagine a better representative than John Eliot Gardiner leading the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra in the composer’s magnificent “Vespro della Beata Vergine” — or Vespers, for short. It’s a spiritual experience that feels uncannily present in rich, heavenly sound.
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Michael Brodeur is the Washington Post's classical music critic. Over the past decade, Brodeur has served as an assistant arts editor and cultural critic for the Boston Globe, overseeing the paper’s Sunday Books section and writing the Globe’s weekly @large column. Prior to that, he served as music editor and lead music critic for the Boston Phoenix and as editor in chief of Boston’s Weekly Dig. His writings have appeared in Nylon, Thrillist, Entrepreneur, Medium, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, among other publications, and a first book is forthcoming from Beacon Press. He has released five music albums under different monikers, most recently writing and performing electronic music under the name New Dad.
George Etheredge is a New York–based photographer raised in North Carolina. Etheredge has worked with the New York Times, Time, Rolling Stone, and many other clients on a wide variety of projects. He was recognized as one of “The 30: New and Emerging Photographers to Watch in 2020.”
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