The Well-Tempered Music Guy

Simple thoughts by a simple listener on classical music

Monday, December 18, 2006

Period Performance in New York

My reference to the "strange paucity of period performance in New York" provoked this response, which I published as a "comment" but wanted to bring attention to it in the body of the blog:

I see you read Oesterreich's review in the Times and have taken his prejudice at face value. The notion he perpetuates, that New York does not offer top-notch period performance, is a habitual thorn in the side to those of us who routinely perform period music at a top-notch level.

As a vocalist active in church music, I urge you to take into account the work of early musicians that goes overlooked by the reviewers. Just two examples:

The Magnificat offered yesterday at Holy Trinity Lutheran's Bach Vespers by professional period performers (with the able contribution of parish singers!) was expert technically and powerful musically. Judging from your description, it sounds like we did a better job than Koopman's people did!

Also yesterday afternoon, downtown at Trinity Church, Wall Street, another professional church choir with a period sound, together with Ensemble Rebel's instrumentalists who travel from all over the world to gig in New York, offered Messiah in a performance that has gained a worldwide audience (thanks to annual radio play and webcasts) AND acclaim by the press.

New York may not perceivably be the crucible of period performance that we wish it to be. But to assume that top-notch period performance is rare here is false. It's definitely out there. We, the musicians, are here and working.

I'm so glad to hear from an early music musician and I salute you for your efforts! First, I'll offer what weak defense I have for my remark: I wasn't quite merely "assuming" it to be the case. I certainly wasn't taking anything Oestreich said at face value, because I don't think he's a terribly good reviewer. I look through the music listings in the Times for performances, and I don't generally see very much in the way of baroque music on period instruments. (And by "baroque music" I basically mean Bach and Handel, because I confess I'm not much interested in anything else.) There may simply be a publicity problem -- do you have a place where interested concertgoers like me can find out about these performances? But I admit that I have allowed the blanket comments in Times reviews to confirm my (mis)impressions gained from perusing listings. I missed the performances you mentioned, and I would have loved to have heard them.

One group I'm aware of and whose mailing list I'm on is the New York Collegium. I went to the New York Collegium's performance of the St. Matthew Passion. The playing seemed excellent, but it was hard to even hear it clearly because the performance was given in such a hopelessly cavernous venue (a large church on the east side, I'm blanking on the name). The fast, contrapuntal parts were completely lost.

As a group that has had its struggles, the NY Collegium is not offering many concerts in its season, a problem they are obviously trying hard to remedy. Their current season offers only four programs. But another problem for which they are perhaps more to blame is what they choose to play in those few programs. The next concert, advertised on their home page, features 17th Century works by
Biber, Weichlein, Rittler, Vejvanovsky and Schmelzer. Who? You lost me after Biber.

If I were to start a period group, I would simply call it the "Bach and Handel Orchestra," and play almost exclusively music by those composers. There is simply a huge dropoff in quality of Baroque music after those two titans. A smattering of music, perhaps for historical context, is certainly welcome, but it seems to me that any series of baroque performances would have to center on Bach and Handel. This is really not all that limiting -- both these fellows wrote REAMS of gorgeous music, much of which is not heard all that often.

I also had in mind the lack of visiting period groups at New York's big venues, Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. The Amsterdam Baroque's performances (and ones by the Acadamy of Ancient Music later in the season) seem to be marking a significant change. I have been in New York and attending concerts for 8 years, and I don't ever recall seeing major period groups in Carnegie's schedule before last season. Lincoln Center has had occasional visits, but still at a rate disproportionately small relative to the greatness and importance of, say, Bach and Handel and the top-notch period groups that do them justice.

But really, getting back to the original point: the problem, if there is one, is perception, publicity, and venue, and clearly not any lack of talent or effort on the part of musicians. Please post more comments and let us know about more performances.


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