Saturday, June 22, 2013

Orchestral manoeuvres at BEMF

Robert Mealy leads the BEMF Orchestra. Photo: Kathy Wittman
Sorry for the delay, but I still have remaining thoughts about a few performances from last week's Boston Early Music Festival (perhaps two posts' worth!).

One of the more intriguing concerts I caught during that busy week was "The Birth of the Orchestra," which featured the remarkable BEMF Orchestra, under the direction of concertmaster Robert Mealy (above). As I've said before, this ensemble is a conclave of superstars (MiloŇ° Valent and Cynthia Roberts on violin, Laura Jeppesen on viola, Phoebe Carrai on violoncello, Gonzalo X. Ruiz on oboe, Avi Stein on harpsichord and organ . . . the list goes on), and the program promised a kind of curated comparison between the two musical centers (Paris, under Lully, and Rome, under Corelli) where that marvelous invention we call "the orchestra" first coalesced.  

The word "orchestra" itself derives from the Greek for the spot in which the chorus performed in ancient amphitheatres - orkhestra is literally "the space in front of the stage," but its etymological taproot is the verb "to dance," orkheisthai.  Given this etymology, it's appropriate that dance figured in this concert (and indeed, courtly dance, which eventually evolved into ballet, was key to the orchestra's early life in France).

So far, so good; and much of the concert proved transporting. But some conceptual disarray - the programming felt more like a potluck than a progression - and occasional passages that weren't as crisp as these stars' best work, often distracted me between the high points of the performance.

From the top, Mealy announced that the ensemble was tuned not to the modern "A" (440 Hz), but instead to a kind of "historical" A, at 392 Hz - a full step lower than we're used to, and the equivalent of the modern "G." Mealy commented that this tuning had been of great help to the singers in Almira, BEMF's main event, so he was hanging onto it - but I didn't really find that argument convincing. To be blunt - there were no singers in this concert, so any argument for a low tuning had to have some other justification. (Singers are always happier with a low tuning, as it lowers the strain on their vocal chords - in fact the seeming march to high tunings over time has often been slowed by battles between singers and instrumentalists.)  

Then there was the question of why this tuning was quite so low. There's a consensus that historical tunings were in general lower than they are today; many scholars cite 415 Hz, a half-step lower than modern A, as a rough guide to "the baroque A." But some evidence contradicts this - indeed, there simply was no standard "A" during the baroque period as there is today, and I've found references for the pitch (from tuning forks and organ pipes of the period) that range as high as A=457, or even A=465 (a half-step higher than the modern A).

Now a concert contrasting orchestral development in Rome and Paris might, you'd think, explore the likely fact that "A" was pitched at very different frequencies between those two locales.  (Indeed, you could make the larger claim that the general movement toward pitch coherence in historic performance is actually anti-historic.) But then again, re-tuning period strings is a tricky business, as for all their beauty these instruments can be recalcitrant; they yearn to return to their habitual tunings, and given variations in humidity and temperature, they sometimes decide to inch out of tune anyway. And this was a slight problem for  the BEMF Orchestra - some re-tuning went on during the performance, but I sometimes felt a few string players were no longer quite in synch with the ensemble.

Some slight gaps in cohesion were felt as well - amusingly so, since Corelli was noted for his nearly obsessive insistence on orchestral unity (legend has it he broke a violin over the back of one unruly player). It's not that these players were unruly, of course - but a few of these stars didn't always seem to be on precisely the same page; although as some were being called to contribute to multiple programs over the course of the week, the occasional gap in focus was almost inevitable.

And there were certainly abundant pleasures here, beginning with the spirited opening of Handel's overture to Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disingonno. Given Corelli's importance in the actual gestation of the orchestra, I was surprised we didn't hear more from him, but his one appearance, with the Concerto Grosso in D Major, Op. 6, No. 1, came off well (particularly the mournful, stately Largo).

One clear argument for a low tuning, of course, would be that it allows for a more darkly shaded and complex sound - I wish that Mealy had said that, for if this was his strategy, it paid off in Handel's overture to Agrippina and Georg Muffat's haunting Dulce Somnium (particularly its fascinatingly labyrinthine Passacaglia). It was intriguing to compare this somewhat-anxious Agrippina to the brighter modern sound Boston Lyric Opera gave it two years ago - here it felt far more mottled, tragic, and well, antique, for lack of a better word. (It's slightly amusing to ponder that early music could itself have conjured a sense of even earlier music.)

Elsewhere the program often focused on dance and dramatic action. While Corelli got short shrift, Mealy lavished his attention on Lully, particularly the dance music.  Here the BEMF Dance Ensemble - Caroline Copeland, Carlos Fittante, Karin Modigh, and Mickael Bouffard - got to strut their stuff in a series of courtly dances in full costume, which I felt was an inspired idea, but only highlighted that the dance component of BEMF is still playing catch-up, I'm afraid, to its musical achievement.

This question is a vexing one, though. There were no "professional" dancers in Lully's day - technically speaking. But the truth is that courtiers devoted much of their lives to dance training, as in the court of the Sun King, himself an avid dancer, favor often fell on the fleet of foot. The BEMF dancers are certainly stylish - Ms. Copeland seems the most accomplished - but they're hamstrung, if you'll pardon the pun, by choreography that can sometimes seem repetitive. Again, there's an argument for limiting their movement to the boundaries of existing documentation (which emphasizes the hands, feet, and floor patterns) - but there are other arguments as well, I'd say, for experimentation and more clearly personal artistic statements. Given that dance and the orchestra were so closely tied at their birth (remember that Greek derivation of the word "orchestra"?), I wish BEMF could provide a deeper focus on dance in future, with perhaps whole concerts given over to dance and dancers.

That's a longer argument, of course, for another day. I'd be remiss, however, if I didn't mention the charming performances of selections from John Blow's opera Venus and Adonis (particularly the lively percussion from Ben Grossman), and an intriguing take on Philipp Heinrich Erlebach's Orchestral Suite No. 1 (a piece with which I was unacquainted). The subtlety of the Erlebach argued strongly for more attention being paid to this composer; the closing Chaconne in particular was a tender marvel. So sometimes you can be lucky in potluck - it can, in the end, yield something truly delicious. 

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