Owed to Joy

by Holly Stern (pictured!)Holly Stern

Hard to believe it’s been 16 years since I wrote the last Baroque Enquirer. [Check out all of Holly’s newsletters here!] PBO was a mere teenager then. Now it’s time to celebrate the orchestra’s 35th birthday.

It’s time to get HIP!

I know, I know. Most of you are already hip to HIP, and that, too, bears celebrating.

HIP stands for Historically Informed Performance, which sounds fairly daunting and perhaps even a bit boring. But, in fact, it is what PBO has always done and which you have been enjoying since your first concert with us. (Now, doesn’t that make you feel positively brilliant?)

HIP is the use of instruments like the ones Baroque composers wrote for. It’s an exploration into what never made it onto those pages of music, but which the performers of the day knew to do. And it’s just plain fun.

What, inquiring minds want to know, makes it so much fun? The list could be long, but this article should be short, so I’ll just get the discussion started.

My favorite reason is the constant sense of discovery. Since Baroque composers rarely notated whether something should be played loud or soft, short or long, whether the phrase moves toward this note or that, much was left up to the performers. Which provides ample opportunities for a fresh approach. There have been years when we played Handel’s Messiah on four consecutive days, and each one was different, made so by the raised eyebrow or other body language of the conductor/harpsichordist. To have the director trust you to adapt on the spot, in front of an audience, is a heady feeling. As is the joy of discovering new possibilities in a well known work.

Monica Huggett, PBO’s Artistic Director, is a master of interpretation. She can play a phrase so convincingly you’re sure that is The Way it should sound. Then she’ll stand the phrase on its head, and you’ll say, “Oh, wait. That’s the way it’s supposed to go.” And the next day, she’ll . . .

Time out here to relay a favorite anecdote. Several years ago, Ton Koopman, director of the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and a generous mentor and guest artist with PBO, was conducting a major modern symphony orchestra. Now, Ton, like Monica, loves to delve into a work’s possibilities, something apparently unappreciated by the reviewer, who took him to task for “micromanaging” the orchestra. The print went something like, “These musicians know their Beethoven symphonies. All you have to do is get them started, and they can take it from there.” Yawn. Please note, this is (thankfully) by no means the universal approach in modern orchestras. But with HIP, the joy truly is in the details.

In my 30 years as a violinist with PBO, this has always been the absolutely best time of year: the opening of a new season. Just think of all the delectable concerts you have stretching out before you. As you listen to this all-Vivaldi concert, take note of the word painting which is sure to be embedded in the vocal pieces. Bask in the nuances and energy, as the orchestra brings the instrumental works to life.

With all this in store, don’t you feel just a wee bit sorry for your friends who perhaps suffer from baroqueophobia? The ones who think they’d be bored silly at a concert of 17th- and 18th-century music? Now is your chance to do a Good Deed. Bring them with you. I still remember one of my students telling me about her mother’s reaction at a PBO concert. The poor woman must have braced herself for tedium, because partway through, she leaned over to her daughter and said, “This is Baroque music??? I like this!”

Your turn to spread the word. The PBO experience truly is owed to joy. And if you tell your friends that, they will think you’re bringing them to a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth, and they’ll be hooked before you know it.

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