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November 11, 2003

Academy of Ancient Music proves that if it's Baroque, you better fix it

Although the year 1700 is, by the standards of most academic disciplines, recent history, it marks the beginning of most of the music that we can appreciate today. Obviously, there was music in the Renaissance and earlier. But only with Bach do we have a composer of artistic stature comparable to Homer, Shakespeare, Plato, Da Vinci, and the various other canonical figures with whom we are all familiar.

It would be unfair to qualify baroque music as somehow so old that, like Beowulf, it is incomprehensible in its original language. Rather, to hear baroque music played on period instruments is comparable to attending a Shakespearean play. The film version of Romeo and Juliet made several years ago with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes resembled contemporary recordings of Bach's music on the modern concert piano; the movie is as enjoyable as these recordings because they bring to life pieces written hundreds of years ago for an ear less accustomed to subtlety.

Our modern eyes and ears are capable of appreciating a greater range sensory information. The tools that allow us to follow an MTV music video are tools that someone 300 years ago had in a less refined, more easily entertained form, and you can be sure they would have trouble following the pace of today's visual entertainment. Similarly our ears, far less refined than theirs, can sometimes be as indifferent to the music of Bach as theirs would be offended by that of Sonic Youth.

Hence, the crowd last Friday in Mandel Hall was predictably unimpressed. The dynamic range of eight musicians on instruments with less volume than your cell phone is simply not enough to get the blood of either the elderly or, specifically, the young pumping. The players themselves are, by all accounts, some of the best of this age; the Academy is one of the oldest period ensembles and has won innumerable awards. The control with which Pavlo Beznosiuk, the first violinist, handled his tiny instrument (baroque violins are significantly smaller than contemporary ones) was remarkable. Rachel Brown got a chance to demonstrate fully her command of Baroque flutes in a performance of Bach's Second Orchestral Suite. When the Academy played a Vivaldi concerto movement as an encore, Brown pulled out a sopranino recorder, an instrument hardly larger than a pen, and played the kind of virtuoso music I am privileged enough┬Świthout thereby making a value judgment about the music itself┬Śnot to have to hear too often in Mandel Hall.

Three of the four numbers of the program featured the harpsichord, manned by guest director Richard Egarr, as a concertante, rather than continuo, instrument; in other words, it served as a leading, not accompanying, member of the ensemble. Harpsichords are scarcely louder than the speaking voice of a 10-year-old and despite Egarr's wildly emotive body movements during the music climaxes, the rest of the ensemble had to either barely play or not play at all in order to hear him. The great concerto pianists of this century, seated at the helm of full orchestras, savaged their Steinway grands and dominated the strings. Through what I imagine to be no fault of Egarr's, various moments of fantasia-style keyboard heroics were flat and muddy.

Bach is an incredible artist, perhaps my favorite, and I have no trouble appreciating, during concerts such as this, the way a slight alteration of phrase, a slightly deceptive cadence, or some subtle inner voice counterpoint can admirably substitute for the chromatic and dynamic drama of Schubert or Stravinsky. It is unquestionably interesting to hear once in a while the way things used to sound, and to hear how far music has come.