Baroque and the 21st century orchestra – The Messiah in Bogota

This week, we’re performing a complete “Messiah” with the National Orchestra of Colombia. It is my last project as their music director. “The Messiah” is in no way such a standard piece here, as it is in many places in Europe and the US, and even less so in its complete version. But what this project really made me think of, is the way baroque (or any music before 1780) is being played and programmed by todays orchestras.

Earlier in the century, there were pioneers and pioneer institutions, such as Harpsichordist Wanda Landowska or the Scola Cantorum Basiliensis who approached historical repertoire in greater detail and with more scientific interest. But it was really not until the 70s that performances on historic instruments entered the mainstream classical recordings and concert scene. The interest in a more informed and “objective” way of looking at this repertoire went together with the scientific tendencies of post-war serialism. Performers were reacting against the unreflected and generalised view of older repertoire by many of the important interpreters of the early twentieth century. “Signori, vibrato!! Bach e Puccini , la stessa cosa.” Furtwängler  said to his musicians in the 40s.

The classical repertoire started to expand in both historic and contemporary direction. In the later part of the twentieth century, Philip Glass and Monteverdi became more popular than Gounod or Weber. With the many specialised groups performing on period instruments, the repertoire before 1780 went from being underrehearsed and never properly thought about to being considered so specialist that many symphony orchestras didn’t program this repertoire anymore. It was often left to the period instrument groups. As the main repertoire of the orchestras shifted from the 19th century to the 20th century works, the effect was not the same in the historic direction. With the exception of orchestras who worked with conductors or leaders who had an interest in period performance, names like Handel, Rameau or Gabrieli never really entered the subscription series of major symphony orchestras, apart from being treated like strange little curiosities.

This is a total shame. The historically informed performance movement went from academic dogma to being a inspiring musical force, with great orchestras or performers opening up new sound worlds and facets to this great repertoire. For me, one of the greatest aspects was, the creative treatment of much of the classical repertoire. Suddenly all the peculiarities and weirdnesses weren’t just neglected or ironed out, but polished and welcomed. New sound worlds were opened up, and the music of many composers regained some of the radical edge that once made them stand out. Notation, setups, vibrato, instrumentation and articulation are allowed to be seen with fresh eyes, which I think is a great contribution of the period practise movement.

It is inspiring for us musicians to be able to expand our way to play and to read and think about the historic repertoire. But there is also a real need to program this repertoire. As Nicolas McGegan rightly says in his great article “Bach without Fear”, some of our halls nowadays are far too big for certain historic repertoire, but there is a wider challenge for orchestras to look elsewhere to bring their music to new and appropriate venues for this music. Programming historic music is part of the whole idea to make the concert hall a space for the unexpected and the unknown. If orchestras should be relevant in the 21st century, they should be able to present all music from 1500 to the present in creative ways. Many orchestras I work with, already use the new possibilities of historic instruments and playing techniques. But there is still a lot to be done to bring the baroque repertoire back to the symphonic music life of today.

So, this Messiah in Bogota is not just a cheap way to sell a few tickets in the christmas season, but a commitment to an artistic idea: to present the orchestra as a place of discovery. Not many people here in Colombia will have heard this work complete.  We worked with a few period specialists over the years and I think the public will find some of the curiosity and stylistic flexibility in this “Messiah”. The soloists are all young Colombians and the chorus is the great Chorus of the Andes University. Last complete performance is in Bogota, on the 15th of December 2012.

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