Goin Baroque: A PRIMER ON THE ART OF ANCIENT MUSIC

By Reel, James | Strings, August 2009 | Go to article overview

Goin Baroque: A PRIMER ON THE ART OF ANCIENT MUSIC


Reel, James, Strings


Once regarded as a sanctuary for scholars, Baroque music is finding favor with a growing number of modern string players.

300 years ago, every string player was hip to historically informed performance practice. For them, Baroque music, instruments, and practice weren't "historical" - it was the style of the moment. To play Baroque music in the most effective fashion, young musicians simply learned their instruments, picked up tips from experienced players, and plunged into what was then modern music.

These days, it's not so easy for fans of Baroqueera Italian violinist and composer Arcangelo Corelli to party like it's 1699. So much has changed- musical aesthetics, the design of stringed instruments and bows, the manufacture of strings, even the kinds of places where music is played. AH these developments have separated modern players and fans from the sounds of the 17th and 18th centuries. During the past 50 years, though, so-called ancient music played in a manner - and on instruments - akin to what was common in the Baroque era has become increasingly popular. The skill level of the practitioners has steadily increased, as have the availability of affordable period-style instruments and the variety of approaches to old scores through a reimagining of the aesthetics of their time.

And it's no longer only a pursuit for specialists. Today's orchestral musicians may play Johannes Brahms or John Adams one week and J. S. Bach the next, using a few Baroque techniques specific to Bach's time without having to trade in their modern instruments.

"Some mainstream players are curious about a 'Baroque' approach to bowing, ornaments, and improvisation, and are looking to transfer what they learn from Baroque techniques to their modern violin as a way of expanding their musical vocabulary," says Hank Knox, chair of the early-music area of McGill University's Schulich School of Music. "I see nothing wrong with that approach and, in fact, I admire those willing to do that: It opens up a new way of hearing and playing Baroque repertoire and can make it more alive and vibrant."

Of course, not everyone embraces the period-instrument/historical-performance movement. Violinist Pinchas Zukerman's well-known rejection of period instruments has been fierce and colorful. And cellist Janos Starker, who has made several acclaimed Bach recordings, is also a modern-approach partisan. Consider this Starker quote from Joyce Geeting's recent Starker biography King of Cellists: The Making of an Artist. In Starker's effort to play Bach for today's audiences, "the dominating factor became the search for simplicity, purity, balance, contrasts, positive and negative sounds, and the tension-release function - I resolved that instead of authenticity, authority is supreme - authority that comes from intuition, endless experimentation, and conviction."

It takes decades to develop the sort of authority Starker is talking about, and intuition is something that not every player can rely on. Today's wise young string player should at least become familiar with the basic tenets of historical-performance practice, and perhaps experiment with gut strings and Baroque bows. The pursuit is becoming so common that going Baroque is almost the mainstream thing to do.

1 CONSIDER GUT STRINGS

Back in the 1960s, historically informed period-instrument performers had to put up with a lot of sneering. They were either denigrated as players whose technique was so shoddy that they took refuge among squawking old instruments where their faults were less noticeable, or they were regarded as eggheads who spent more time perusing dusty treatises than practicing their instruments.

In the 1970s and early '80s, more and more string players were demonstrating great facility with instruments and styles that were peculiarly different from the modern norm, and they were holding forth even more effectively in the concert hall than the library reading room. …

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