Known as an extremely versatile musician, Karl Middleman is familiar to classical music audiences as a lecturer, teacher and conductor of many orchestras and choirs.
The upstarts in this instance were period instrument musicians. Modern-day interest in period instruments – as manifested in performances on replicas of instruments from earlier times – arose in the 1960’s most prominently in Amsterdam and Vienna. According to the upstarts, modern manufacturing and ignorance of historical practices by modern performers had generated serious aberrations. So-called ‘improvements’ made to the instruments’ designs had corrupted the instruments’ essential characters. The sound worlds of the old masters had virtually vanished. Bach, Mozart and Beethoven might as well be placed on the endangered list.
Classical music needed to be rescued from its fans. Modernization needed reversal. Musicians needed to play period instruments again.
But most 20th Century performers and audiences were unmoved by historical concerns. Pinchas Zuckerman epitomized the contempt of many when he publicly deprecated the old instruments and their practitioners. “What the (expletive) is that? These are professional musicians? If you hear them in public, (you will be) amazed at how bad they sound and out of tune.” Hearing this, Jeanne Lamon, leader of Toronto’s pioneering period instrument orchestra, Tafelmusik, publicly challenged Zuckerman to a face-off. When Zuckerman failed to respond, Toronto’s local radio station played both his and Lamon’s versions of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons back to back. Impressed by the bite and vigor of the old instruments, audiences gave the nod to Lamon.
Period instrument performers have delighted many other audiences, too, such that 50 years later the revolution has mostly subsided. Most modern orchestras have ceded early music over to period instrumentalists. And, happily, many modern performers have become historically informed. Conductors Simon Rattle and Yannick Nezet Seguin are just two megastars who have embraced historical practices.
Memories of my first live experiences with period instruments in Boston still thrill me today. The tones were piquant and pure. The attack and decay periods were clearly articulated. The vibrato was tasteful. The old sounds were entirely new.
Most of all, the music was vivid. The blaring valveless horns conjured up an enormous Peter Paul Ruebens hunting tableau filled with horse-backed hunters and wild boars with flaring nostrils.
The natural trumpets – valveless like the horns – were so clarion I understood for the first time why Bach employed trumpets to signify God’s majesty. The softer wooden flutes seemed much closer to Nature than their platinum successors. When the wooden flutes played, I could hear incantations of peaceful brooks. Breezes wafted through gentle hills. Here was a Watteau “fête galante” painting – now teasing, now coy.
The cellos impressed me the most. Baroque cellists did not balance their instruments on endpins like their counterparts do today. They cradled their instruments in fervent embrace. Squint a little and you might imagine lovers. Handel’s Semele sings of, “Endless pleasure, endless love.” That was Boston for me back then.
I realize now that I fell in love with period instruments for the wrong reasons. Not because they were correct, but because they moved me.
Maybe that’s the right reason.
The battle of Boston may be over, but the war for classical music still rages. Arts groups are knuckling under financial pressures. Orchestras are losing their patrons. Classical music is vanishing from school curriculums. Market pressures force classical music ever more into the circus-tent.
In this spectacle-driven world, what can reflective classical musicians do to win new audiences? Clearly, the “listen to this; it’s good for you,” approach is useless.
Classical musicians should instead promote the ‘wrong’ reasons for musical engagement. Yes, classical music can be enriching and uplifting, but first it is gorgeous, provocative and sensual. In future columns I will discuss ways to enhance classical music’s appeal. Yes, there are many.
When did classical music first grab you? Where are you with it today? Where do you want to go with it?
Let me hear from you.