Dallas — The Dallas Symphony paired down to Baroque size for a concert of music from that era on March 3. There appears to be some controversy about how to play this music and on what. There is one school of thought that says you should only use Baroque era instruments (or modern facsimiles). Another group thinks that modern instruments are OK as long as historically correct performance practice is used (mostly this is about vibrato in the string section). Some say it doesn’t matter and even approve of full vibrato. After all, we frequently hear Bach, et al, on a modern piano and no one squawks.
Dutch conductor Ton Koopman, a Baroque specialist, was on the podium. Well, right there is a conundrum. There was no such thing as a conductor in the Baroque era. The composer conducted from the harpsichord, occasionally assisted by the concertmaster, who would wave the bow. Instead, Koopman stood in front of the orchestra, without rising up on a podium, and energetically waved his hands as he bounced around. He certainly didn’t use modern baton technique, but then other Baroque specialists also prefer dancing to conducting.
For this concert, “orchestral” was defined as with strings and a harpsichord with the addition of some oboes, flutes, trumpets, and timpani. The harpsichord was the only historically correct instrument on the stage (and could have used minor amplification). The timpani were the most disruptive modern interlopers and sounded odd with their deep and resonant sound; so different from their more soft-spoken ancestors. See Moment of Geek below.
We heard suites by two Baroque masters: Bach (No. 3 in D major) and Telemann (Suite No. 3 from his collection entitled Tafelmusik). Handel’s well known “Entrance of the Queen of Sheba” from Solomon gave the oboes a chance to step forward.
However, the star of the evening was principal flutist Demarre McGill, in a lovely performance of C.P.E. Bach’s Flute Concerto in A major. This was not the hoped-for showpiece wanted for McGill’s concerto outing; concerti by Liebermann or Nielsen would have hit the spot.
But it did let McGill shine with his technical fluency and dead-on intonation. He modified his sound somewhat to adjust Baroque sensibilities for the modern flute. He turned in a marvelous performance that left us wanting more.
Moment of Geek: Baroque timpani were smaller than modern ones and the heads were made from scraped and stretched animal skins. This is very unlike today’s engineered heads. The result was a much smaller drum, with a thick head and, resultantly, made smaller and less booming sounds. Also, drawings make it plain that these drums were hit in the center of the head, which is the least resonant spot. As time went on, the timpanist moved the stroke further to the rim, producing a much better sound. No one can date this move exactly, but drawings form Haydn’s time show this newer technique quite clearly.