September 13 NYS Baroque

NYS Baroque period-instrument ensemble engages both mind and ear

Ithaca based NYS Baroque Ensemble shines in season-opening Syracuse concert

By David Abrams

The term “predictable” typically carries a pejorative connotation. It’s difficult to avoid the term, however, when describing period-instrument ensembles – which by their very nature are predictable in that they play works only of composers from a specific era, and do so in a manner that remains faithful to the performance practice conventions of that time.

NYS Baroque, although predictable in this sense, is a dedicated and capable period-ensemble that produces historically informed performances that consistently sparkle with a freshness of delivery and spontaneity of execution. The ensemble’s engaging Sunday afternoon program of Handel, J.S. Bach, Telemann and Janitsch, buoyed by the substantial talents of Baroque oboist Deborah Nagy, proved as much a treat to the ears as the mind.

Sunday’s audience had ample opportunity to experience the sound of the Baroque oboe, which looks like a recorder with a double-reed protruding from the top. Nagy’s instrument, a three-keyed replica made from boxwood, is a faithful reproduction of the oboe used in London during the time of Handel. As compared with its modern counterpart, the Baroque oboe’s larger bore and bigger reed produces a more mellow and gentler sound that provides a handsome complement to the timbre of the stringed instruments.

Perhaps the most challenging difference affecting listener sensibilities is the differences in pitch: NYS Baroque, like most Baroque period ensembles, tunes at A=415 Hz. – which to the ears of modern listeners sounds strikingly lower than the modern-day standard of A=440 Hz.

Nagy, playing with an accomplished ensemble of strings and harpsichord, participated in four out of the five works on the program – spinning out the ubiquitous trills, mordents and turns in the final movement of Janitsch’s Quadro for oboe and strings in G Minor with grace and élan. Especially beautiful was Nagy’s realization (execution) of the improvisational ornaments in the Largo movement of Telemann’s Concerto in A Major for oboe d’amore and strings, whose lyrical writing for this lower cousin of the oboe unfolds in the manner of an opera aria.

Nagy’s clean fingerwork in the continuous sixteenth-note passages during the opening Allegro movements of this concerto, and in Handel’s Concerto grosso, Op.3 no.3, speaks well of her command of this tricky instrument. Still, it was Nagy’s utter mastery of intonation (her command of pitch in the Siciliano movement of the Telemann Concerto was incredible), as well as carefully balanced dynamic contrasts, that impressed me the most.

Violinist (and Concertmistress) Julie Andrijeski, who like Nagy is both a scholar in the field of early music as well as a convincing practitioner on her instrument, played with spirit and gusto throughout the evening and proved a solid leader to the rest of the string section. Her melodic dialogue with Nagy in the final movement of Bach’s Concerto for oboe and violin, and her convincing terraced dynamics in that movement, was exemplary – as was her crisply executed rhythmic figures in the Allegro of Telemann’s Trio in G Major.

The only blemish on an otherwise outstanding effort by this ensemble was the tempos chosen for the slow movements, which were invariably too fast throughout the performance, and sometimes inexcusably so. The most egregious example of this was during the Bach double concerto, whose quickly paced slow movement (Adagio) all but ruined the leisurely spinning out of Bach’s lavish melodic lines shared between oboe and solo violin.

The skilled period-instrument ensemble was rounded out by Daniel Elyar and Boel Gidholm, violins; Karina Fox, viola; David Morris, cello; Heather Miller Lardin, bass; and David Yearsley, harpsichord. The group tuned carefully before each of the works played, and – on one occasion – between movements. Needless to say, pitch among the instrumentalists was superb throughout the afternoon.

Details Box:
What: NYS Baroque presents The Court Band: Bach, Handel, and the oboe
Where: First Unitarian Universalist Church, 109 Waring Rd., Dewitt
When: September 13, 2009
Who: Debra Nagy, baroque oboe; Julie Andrijeski, violin
Time: One hour and 50 minutes
Information: call (607) 533-4383
Ticket prices: $5 to $25
Next Syracuse concertMusic for the Virgin Queen, with soprano Laura Heimes,
8:00 P.M. October 23, First Unitarian Universalist Church, Dewitt

  5 comments for “September 13 NYS Baroque

  1. Peter Hedrick
    September 18, 2009 at 4:54 pm

    First, congratulations on coming up with this brilliant new (to me) idea! It makes me wonder how people would have answered G. B. Shaw a hundred years ago and more if they could have.

    One of the intriguing aspects of historical performance other than the different timbres of the instruments is the reevaluation of what tempo markings (when present) mean. One of the first reviews of NYS Baroque (Buffalo, 1988) said that they were “teaching us to hear baroque music in a new way.”

    The early music movement in the early ’70s was the hippie movement of classical music. Some early sources (Purcell, for example) give largo as the modern equivalent of modern moderato, not so slow at all. Grave was invariably the marking for very slow movements; adagio simply meant easy – could be slowish, but mainly in relation to the tempi around it. That’s a through-back to renaissance proportionality. When I first heard HIP performances of adagios I reacted the way you did – they are definitely too fast. I later concluded that faster tempi were necessary to express the needed affect or passion, something modern musicians almost never take into consideration.

    The other pole can be heard on sixty-year-old romantic performances of Bach from the Casals Festivals. I grew up listening to the beautiful recording of BWV 1060 with very slow tempi in all three movements. Towards the end of the adagio the oboe has a sustained note that lasts what seems an eternity to the oboist at that very slow tempo. Many of us were sure that Tabuteau assigned another player to that one note so that he could be fresh for the cadenza that follows. Only this year did one of his students, now in her eighties, ‘fess up to being that other player. Nobody can argue that such a performance isn’t beautiful, and it is certainly a reflection of thought during the first half of the twentieth century.

    A study of baroque performance practices shows that it’s not what they would have done in the eighteenth century, that’s all. I remember when NYS Baroque played Pachelbel’s well-known canon, and how upset many people were to hear it played nearly twice as fast as you hear it at weddings, etc. It simply became a different piece.

    “Remember me, but ah! forget my cruel fate.” (Dido)

    Thanks for providing this opportunity!

  2. David Abrams
    September 19, 2009 at 2:37 am

    Peter,

    Your thoughtful comment about tempo in authentic Baroque performance practice deserves serious consideration, although due to the present forum I hope you’ll forgive the regrettably brief response. 

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    How relevant is the issue of tempo in a “historically informed” performance?  Could it be important enough to trump issues of mood and character of interpretation?  Even if it were possible to find consistent agreement among early sources with respect to tempo indications in Baroque music, it is likely that observances of such tempo markings varied widely among individual performers and ensembles – just as it does today.  Even after invention of the metronome in 1812, specific tempo indications are routinely modified, if not ignored altogether (how many conductors today would consider Beethoven’s metronome markings for his symphonies as accurate reflections on what the composer had actually intended?).  

     

    My mantra on the subject of tempo comes from the late great pianist/teacher, Robert Goldsand, who postulated (and I paraphrase), “There is no such thing as a definitive tempo: If the mood is right, then the tempo has to be right.”  I am reminded of the incredibly slow tempos of Claudio Arrau’s recording of Brahms’ Piano Concerto No.2, which I find as valid as Rudolph Serkin’s much faster version of the same work: two vastly different tempos; two equally convincing interpretations; two “correct” tempos.  Using Goldsand’s litmus test on Sunday’s NYS Baroque performance of the “slow” movement of Bach’s Double Concerto, the mood was just not right (rushed phrases, etc.), and neither, then, was the tempo. 

     

    You may argue that my 20th-century ears are hardly reliable when it comes to recreating early 18th-century sensibilities, but that’s precisely the point: For all its attention to authentic musical practices with respect to timbre, tempo and manner of performance, a Baroque period-instrument ensemble can never recreate for its audience the sensibilities of the 17th and early 18th-century listener.  Given this, might it be more prudent to try and capture The Affections of a Baroque work through attention to mood rather than “accuracy” of tempo? 

    Just my humble opinion, sir – I hope others add theirs…

    DA               

  3. George Bain
    September 26, 2009 at 3:25 pm

    David

    Hope your visitors will be able to share in your orchestra reviews. The flagship of the arts community got off to a rocky start last night, judging by the sad size of the house, though the solo pianist did her best to liven up the proceedings. With so many new players on stage, the community should show more interest in how a new sound may develop this season. You can help keep that issue current!
    George

  4. Arthur Krieck
    September 30, 2009 at 9:57 pm

    What comes to mind whenever the question of “authentic” performance practice comes up is something my teacher Jorie Garrigue used to say, before she herself dove into the “original instruments” movement: that taking your cues from books and treatises about performance practice in another time and place might be instructive, but that the artists themselves just might not have performed the way the books describe! I think her point is that one has to trust musical instincts first, perhaps informed by what you read in books, but your instincts must come first in questions of performance practice.

  5. October 9, 2009 at 1:54 pm

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