period instruments affair

Edit: The broadcast is at 3PM EST, not 4 like i said. Here’s again the link.

** disclaimer: this is purely my own opinion, in particular about the hall. everyone should sample the hall for his/herself before making decision.

A long time ago, young thadieu set out to explore life and voluntarily registered for a class called “classical music appreciation”.  As part of the requirement, each student had to attend and submit full reports of 3 live concerts.  That first one was a bore, in the hectic zoo of tripple upper-deck of Hollywood Bowl, which we arrived late and left at intermission to avoid further traffic.  The 2nd one took place in a church during lunch time, 4 players on period instruments enjoying playing and interacting with the audience.  Everything i learned in class was on display, how the instruments ask and respond to each other warmly.  After the concert, the musicians invited us up for a closer look at the viola da gamba and some other really odd looking things.  I wrote up a very enthusiastic report, and despite never attended a 3rd concert, received very high mark for the class.

Since the first Bach Matthäuspassion in that church in Berlin, I’ve gained quite a few more insights into the music.  The piece is long enough that in every live performance you catch something new.  Anyhow, a chance to hear it performed live on period instruments was too great to pass up, so i dislodged my wariness of Symphony Hall and bought tix to hear the Handel and Haydn Society performance last night.

Boston Symphony Hall, (c) Stu Rosner

We shall focus on the positive part first:

The highlight of the night was “Erbarme Dich” (and the mezzo) . That’s Aisslinn Nosky solo violin to mezzo Monica Groop warm voice.  *Love* the tempo set by Harry Christophers. Here’s another case where bitter regret can be conveyed through faster than slow tempo (last time i said this was to “Che faro senza Euridice“). Through the years, my feeling is that it’s really a hit or miss with violinist/tempo/mezzo combo to bring out the emotion in the music. Here, the sounds were incredibly warm from both, beautifully mixed, left you all the time in the world to reflect. I know this aria is sooo famous and has been sung to death.  But to really have time to reflect on that irreversible moment is a unique experience: Peter had just denied Jesus three times and is now seen standing outside crying bitterly begging for forgiveness (don’t be alarmed to hear that from me, I grew up a catholic remember? and used to read through this whole story, even walked along the 14 stages in church reciting the bible.)

The entire 2nd half was superb.  i *love* duets, and duets you shall have many:

Aisslinn Nosky tuning violin


violin + mezzo,
violin + bass
violins + soprano,
viola da gamba + bass,
mezzo + soprano (+ woodwinds),
flutes + mezzo,
oboe + mezzo,
oboe + soprano,
oboe + tenor,
violins + bass

just to name a few… AND, i’ve always wanted to hear the mezzo’s notes in So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen and what the violins are playing in Mache Dich, mein Herze, rein. And as it turned out, Monica Groop’s tone was strong and dark, and stood out very very well that i was able to hear hers in entirety, yayyy. And i now also a big fan of her voice. Really, it’s not so usual to catch such a warm and strong mezzo (subjective here of course, Ingaborg Danz was here at Symphony Hall last year and hausmate reported not hearing her well, mezzo and gigantic halls don’t often mesh). This whole concert will be broadcast live this sunday at 3pm EST on WGBH boston. Do tune in if you are interested. And for Mache Dich, mein Herze, rein, it’s always the case in recording that the bass’ voice dominates so much I don’t get to hear the violins. As it turned out again, sitting way on the left, with the bass on my right ear and WAAARM violin I (headed by Ms. Nosky) on my left (and strong) ear, the distinction was GREAT. love the violins’ music! I’m of course also a big fan of this aria, but for this particular time, i love the violins much more than the bass, so it all worked out.

The rest was great too. The choirs were great. LOVE the tempo, much much more sensitive than a couple of weeks ago. Orchestra dynamics were great, all thanks to Harry Christophers and the superb musicians. Big shout out to the woodwind section on orchestra I, as well as the AMAZING viola-da-gambist (?!).  Orchestra II sounded thin to me, which I’ve attributed it to the distance (see diagram on right, more below).  I’ve come to a conclusion: it’s HARD to get me distracted while listening to Bach St Matthews Passion. There’s soo much communication in the music, not one bit of attention is lost! which brings me to the first part, and why I almost left the concert at intermission…

The first half, from seat CC26, there’s not much to discuss. You can call me deaf if it suits you, but i declare again: Symphony Hall is too big for period instruments. It felt like Munich central train station, huuuuge space, musicians spread out across what must have been a 30m(?) stage.  Aisslinn Nosky was there, Christina Day Martinson was there.  Should I even care? I couldn’t hear them (can’t hear = no detail, you can’t just “hear” the sound of a violin for the sake of identifying it as a violin without anything else to say). Anyhow, St. Matthews Passion is truly an intimate piece. And to hear / miss so much of the fine details of communication between the orchestra and the singers, it’s like a close friend confining in you her most intimate moment from 10m away and you’re wondering half of the time if she’s talking to you or to some other people.  Ever have a feeling where people kind of “yell” in your direction and “appear” to be SOOO into what they are doing, but you’re indifferent to their passion due to no connection? I considered just leaving the concert at intermission.  But, of course, being such a resourceful person, yours truly opted to skip UP 15 rows to land at seat P24.  And that is where one should be! (closer if finer too, i didn’t want to cause a commotion.)


About thả diều
writing-challenged opera-addict

12 Responses to period instruments affair

  1. Eyesometric says:

    Motivated by your thoughts on the acoustics in this venue I went looking for further information. I went off at many tangents but found this the most interesting

    I also dug out my ancient score of Matthäuspassion – in English and Welsh!!! and realised that your example of “Erbarme dich” is the one on the LP that I have languishing in the loft!

    • thả diều says:

      thanks for the link Eyes, now we can read up the acoustics of various halls around the world!

      LP, vhat dat? 🙂
      you mean the recording with Andreas Scholl? i thought they made that recording only recently? have to admit i didn’t grow with LP (when i got to the US, cd already existed) so i really don’t know the difference between it and cd 🙂

      i was told upstair is better at Symphony Hall… from my experience looong time ago, even on balcony, u can’t hear mozart very well.

  2. Eyesometric says:

    Hey ho – Eyes is wrong again! It is the art work of the recording which is the same, obviously too early for Scholl.
    The LP and vinyl in general are enjoying something of a revival over here, mainly with vintage rock/jazz collectors. Unfortunately I no longer have the equipment on which to play mine.
    That’s some radio station you have there 🙂 and I will be checking in regularly – many thanks!

    • thả diều says:

      ah hah, i was indeed wondering when that recording came out :-). so which one is it you have then?
      you know, funny thing, i’ve *just* discovered that radio station too!! looks like they’ll also broadcast boston baroque “orfeo ed euridice”, with yet another CT, sigh.

      good *night* now, my alarm is set for catching broadcast in 8.5 hrs 🙂 . hope you can tune in then, i really love that orchestra (when one is close enough to hear that is….)

    • stray says:

      Vinyl has been doing pretty well here, too — at any rate its sales are increasing as CD sales fall — and I read recently that 78’s are a thing now as well. And yes, it’s rock/jazz people. Classical not so much — nobody wants to go back to flipping the record every half hour. 🙂

  3. Eyesometric says:

    Will not be able to tune in live ( have to be at the theatre rehearsing a fight scene – no mezzos or swords involved unfortunately 😦 ) but will hope to catch the repeat.

    Enjoy the broadcast – if you wake at the correct time!

  4. stray says:

    Yeah, I can see Symphony Hall not being period instrument ensemble-friendly. Jordan Hall would have been a much better venue.

    Love the Boston Early Music Channel, but sometimes I think they should just call it the Kristian Bezuidenhout Channel 🙂

  5. thả diều says:

    here it is. Some afterthoughts: the broadcast confirms pretty much all my impressions live :-). it’s interesting though to hear the chorus so far back here, sounds like the recording-mic were right in front of the soloists.

    love the violin starting here:

    Eyes, how did the fighting go? you didn’t end up in it with the baton did you? 😉
    Stray: haha, i thought it was something in German related to “christian”, turns out it’s the organist :-). why? is he the host of the show and mainly featuring his own playing? (and yes, i wrote many many times Jordan hall is much better for small baroque ensemble, didn’t re-realize how big Symphony Hall is until this time, gave me the same feeling as Disney Hall in LA.)

    • thả diều says:

      and finally, the aria which got me into matthew passion in the first place:

      what is that “click clack” sound? which instrument?
      also, here’s a nice review of the same concert, with a very good pix of the entire hall. 2600 seats!!

    • stray says:

      Kristian B is apparently Boston’s favorite period keyboard player, so he gets a lot of airtime. This is not a bad thing. Here’s a cool little pre-concert video he made awhile back:

  6. Eyesometric says:

    I’m working a very low-level pit this time so no joining in the fight for me! [ having said that I would gladly use crampons & ropes to access certain swordplay 😉 [

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s