Dallas — There is something clean and bracing about a concert of Baroque instrumental music. Fast tempi bounce along and slow tempi can float a melody above a stately step-by-step motion. The various dance forms such as hornpipe, gigue or minuet, which were actually danced at the time, each have their designated pace. There is still a lot of discussion about the proper tempi in Baroque music—the fast Bach versus the slow Bach brouhaha, for example. But in general, we all instinctively know how this music should unfold.
The Dallas Symphony Orchestra at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center played its all-Baroque concert on modern instruments, a perfectly acceptable choice. A number of local groups play music from this period on original instruments, and while arguments fly back and forth, in the end there is a valid place for both points of view. We play Bach on a modern piano and no one faints. And for a major symphonic group, playing a concert of Baroque music can have an effect similar to washing the windows. Concentrating on clarity and precision is always good for the musical soul.
On Thursday evening we had a guest conductor, Italian Baroque specialist Ottavio Dantone, who put the DSO through its paces—and he was nearly flawless. Every tempo hit the mark and he elicited energetic and exultant playing all evening.
Dantone conducted the first half while seated at the harpsichord but stood in the manner of a modern conductor for the second half. However, there was little of the modern conductor in his podium technique. His gestures were informal and minimal, but highly effective in communicating his well thought-out concepts with energy and bounce.
In fact, his journeyman conducting technique turned out to be a plus. As a Baroque specialist, his job is to recreate the music of an era when the conductor was always at the harpsichord and only stood on rare occasions—a far cry from the highly choreographed post-doc Tanglewood-ified conductors we have today.
The first half of the DSO program appeared to explore the concerto grosso form but, because the pieces presented were all so similar, there were few differences to note. All were written in roughly the same time period (around 1720) by four of the big names of the era: George Frideric Handel, Antonio Vivaldi, Arcangelo Corelli and Francesco Geminiani. There was also a concerto grosso by Giovanni Lorenzo Gregori, who was relatively unknown at the time and whose obscurity has not abated since.
All of the pieces were written for the same combination: strings and continuo. Most of them used two solo violinists alternating on phrases. It would have been much more effective if the two players had been sent to opposite sides of the stage. Nevertheless, violinists Nathan Olson and Angela Fuller Heyde both did excellent work in the solo passages. Cellist Christopher Adkins was not used as often, but did an equally fine job with what solo work he had.
(More about the concerto grosso in the “Moment of Geek” at the end.)
The second half of the program, containing some of the best-known Baroque music ever written, suffered from the same lack of variety as the first half. Handel’s Water Music (here his Suite No. 1) and Music for the Royal Fireworks are often performed and much loved. Parts of these pieces are familiar to almost everyone—but again, they are very similar works.
The second half ran head-on into the problems that arise from using modern instruments—in specific, the much bigger sound made by modern horns compared to that of their more reserved ancestors. In today’s orchestra, a large string section can balance a pair of horns, but paired with this smaller section the horns sounded as if they were amplified. On the other hand, David Cooper and Haley Hoops played these passages with such obvious glee and joie de vivre that you wished that the Baroque-era practice of encoring parts of a performance was still around.
The oboes and bassoon were a different, and more successful, story. Contemporary versions of these instruments are more refined than their forerunners, which had only a few keys and produced many pitches by overblowing. The DSO has outstanding principal players and oboeist Erin Hannigan is one of the best. She is matched by her oboeist colleague Brent Ross and bassoonist Wilfred Roberts as a dynamite trio. The combination worked magic.
The Fireworks music added a pair of trumpets and another horn, but with similar problematic results. The timpani appeared to be in the style of those used in the Baroque era; sightlines prevented a visual confirmation, but they didn’t sound as forthright as modern drums.
The continuo in the first half of these performances consisted of a harpsichord, from which Dantone conducted, and two other historically accurate instruments. One was a portatif (small portable pipe organ), which assisted the harpsichord, and a theorbo (a large bass lute), which assisted the cello. Unfortunately, the use of modern orchestral instruments (which are louder) made it virtually impossible to hear the three historical ones distinctly. The harpsichord alone did the honors for the second half.
In a hat tip to Baroque performance practices, Dantone had the strings play with minimal vibrato and shorter bow strokes, taking a middle road in this argument that has fanatical adherents on both sides.
All this PC discussion of modern vs. historic instruments mattered not a whit on Thursday evening. It comes as no surprise that the DSO is a modern symphony with modern instruments. Those in attendance knew exactly what they expected and wanted from the Water and Fireworks music, and “less brass” was not on that list. Balance was futile—not even desired—and any attempt to achieve such an unreasonable goal would be doomed to disappoint everyone. The purists would still be clucking their tongues, and everyone else would have wondered why the brass held back on their favorite parts.
This crisp concert with a compact DSO cleared our calorie-laden palette after the recent feasts of late Romanticism—from The Dallas Opera’s opulent production of Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt to the DSO’s last outing with Brahms, Chopin, Dvořák and Janáček.
Moment of Geek: The string ensemble, such as one the DSO presented, was a big first step on the way to creating the orchestra as we know it today. By using four string sections, composers could transfer their highly developed experience of writing for choirs to the burgeoning instrumental ensemble. As instruments were added for a special occasion, some of them stuck as composers began adding them into their pieces. A concerto usually means that the composer featured a solo instrument with the string group. What made it bigger (grosso) was not the use of a larger group overall but the expansion of the solo player into a small solo group of two or more (usually the first chairs of each section). The continuo part filled in the harmonies and was played by a cello or string bass with some kind of keyboard instrument (harpsichord or organ.) The keyboard part was improvised, based on the notated harmony, and this player (frequently the composers themselves) acted as conductor.
Many years ago, before the original instruments movement raised our awareness about era-specific performance practices, Baroque music was viewed through the prism of the present. Mozart’s elegant touch-up of Handel’s orchestration of the Messiah sits on one side of the rethinking argument and Leopold Stokowski’s galactic expansion of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor stand on the other side as a morbidly obese warning not to overburden the basic character of the music.