January 28, 2010

Nic on performing Brahms: Pt. 2

We don't know if you saw it, but Jonathan Rhodes Lee wrote a great preview of February's concert on San Francisco Classical Voice. In the article, he posed the question: "Will we hear the concerto as Joachim played it? As Brahms would have wanted it heard? As we want him to have wanted it heard? Or as we want it heard following our own standards?" Well, here is Nic's second post to answer that very question:

Here are a few thoughts on the instruments the orchestra will be playing in February:

Strings –

By Brahms’ time the violin, viola and cello had an essentially modern set up, with an angled-back neck and correspondingly higher bridge.

On the violin, gut D, A and E strings were the norm at least until about 1920. A silver or copper-wound G string was usual. Louis Spohr claimed to have invented the chin rest around 1820 to make large shifts in the position of the left hand easier; Spohr’s centrally placed chin rest was widely but by no means universally used. By 1850, the chin rest had migrated to its present position to the left of the tailpiece.

For cellists, the spike or endpin came into use in the 1860’s but many players, including Alfredo Piatti, the cellist of Joseph Joachim’s “London” quartet preferred not to use one.

Double basses usually had four strings, though Domenico Dragonetti, Beethoven’s favourite bassist, used only three. Hans von Bülow was one of the first to use a five string basses in the orchestra at Meiningen (a town in central Germany; Wagner and Brahms were both associated with this orchestra), but he did so some years after Brahms had written his Second Symphony of 1877, where in Bar 13 of the opening movement he writes a rest rather than a low D#; most basses could not yet play that note.

Dragonetti, Robert Linley and John Loder. Edinburgh before 1846.

Winds and brass –

The cylindrical bore flute with the Boehm key system was introduced in 1847, but was slow to gain acceptance. Brahms’ favourite flautist, Franz Doppler, did not play one in the Vienna Philharmonic. Indeed they were banned from certain orchestras until 1914.

Brahms considered that the level of clarinet playing had generally gone down during his lifetime with the notable exception of Richard Mühlfeld of the Meiningen Orchestra. He played Baermann system instruments made of boxwood.

Mühlfeld's clarinets

Brahms wrote his Trio for horn, violin and piano (Opus 40) for the old Waldhorn (a valveless natural horn) but he would have been hard pressed to find one in an orchestra. The Vienna Philharmonic used the Pumpenhorn (a Viennese horn with three valves), which came in after about 1850.

Congrats Jordi and Viktoria!

This just in: Viktoria Mullova, who plays with us in February, and Jordi Savall, who plays with us in March, both won awards for recent recordings on Tuesday at the MIDEM Classical Awards in Cannes, France.

January 25, 2010

Nic on performing Brahms: Part 1

We are excited to post Music Director Nic McGegan's first blog entry for A415 today! This is the first of a series of posts about our February concerts.

As we all know, Philharmonia Baroque is starting the New Year with a voyage into what, for our orchestra, will be uncharted waters: performing the music of Johannes Brahms (pictured left). It promises to be a fascinating and thrilling adventure both for the orchestra and, we hope, for you the listener.

The performance of later Romantic music on period instruments is becoming relatively commonplace in Europe, but, here in the U.S.A., it is much more of a rara avis, at least in the concert hall. I thought that it might be fun for me, as a kind of New Year’s resolution, to jot down some thoughts about how the orchestra might approach the performance of Brahms on period instruments.

Historically-informed performance consists of two basic elements: using period instruments and playing them in what we, perhaps fondly, hope is an appropriate style. For the performance of music before about 1830, both elements have to be combined. After that watershed date, the instruments start to resemble modern ones, but the style of performance differed in many important ways to what one might hear at a modern symphony concert. Our sources on the performance of earlier music are treatises, descriptions and pictures. For music from Brahms onwards, a new source comes into play, namely sound recordings. There is even one of Brahms himself, though, apart from his spoken introduction in a remarkably high, almost squeaky voice, it is impossible to hear much through the miasma of scratches.

For Brahms’ music, we are lucky to have five recordings by his friend, violinist Joseph Joachim, from 1903, plus recorded performances by players and conductors who knew or studied with him. Anyone who wants to delve into this more deeply can read an excellent book called Performing Brahms, edited by Michael Musgrave and Bernard Sherman. There is even a CD with the book with all the Joachim recordings, the one of Brahms himself, piano students of his and Clara Schumann and much more besides.

Stay tuned for more posts in the coming weeks...

January 22, 2010

Meet Mr. Brahms

In yesterday's post, we said that we going to address why Philharmonia Baroque is expanding it's repertoire to play works from 1858 and 1878, some of the newest music we've ever played, but not quite. First, however, let's talk about the beloved Romantic composer of these works: Johannes Brahms. Violinist and Philharmonia Baroque staffer David Wilson joins us again:

When Johannes Brahms (pictured left) was born in 1833, his native city of Hamburg already had a musical tradition that was centuries old. Opera, church music and music publishing all thrived throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. The city also had a tradition of public concerts – something we take for granted today but was not a given throughout history. This was the environment into which Brahms was born. His family was working class, but valued music and education. Brahms went to school and had lessons on piano, cello and horn. As a teenager, he began to perform in public as a pianist and to write music.

At the age of 20, Brahms was meeting and playing music with many musicians who were or would become some of the foremost performers and composers of their time, including violinist Joseph Joachim, for whom Brahms would later write his only violin concerto, and Franz Liszt. Joachim told Brahms that he really should get to know the Schumanns, Robert and Clara, both of whom were composers. He did so in September of 1853 and a lifelong friendship between the three musicians began. Brahms spent the next ten years performing, composing chamber music and thinking about the creative process and how that relates to life.

In 1855, frustrated with composition to the point of writing that he no longer had any idea how one goes about composing music, he turned to early music – the counterpoint of Bach, for example, and to baroque and renaissance dance forms – as well as folk music for creative inspiration. It worked. (In our time, Estonian composer Arvo Pärt reached a similar creative impasse and, like Brahms, he resolved it through a study and application of the principles of early music.) Brahms’s interest in early music was also reflected in the repertoire he chose for the choirs and orchestras he conducted in Hamburg and Vienna, as well as the repertoire he performed in his piano recitals. In 1850, the Bach-Gesellschaft (Bach Society) was formed in Germany to publish the complete works of J.S. Bach. Brahms owned a number of volumes (cantatas) of that complete-works edition and may even have been a subscriber of the Society.

In 1869, the first full performance of his German Requiem was greeted so enthusiastically that Brahms finally became known as an important composer throughout Europe. Despite a disastrous stock market collapse in 1873 that trashed the economies of most European countries (and that of the U.S.), Brahms’s own fortunes soared in the 1870s in the form of concert tours, guest conducting engagements throughout Europe, awards and knighthoods, publishing contracts and teaching engagements. He continued to compose in many genres, including large works involving orchestra.

Brahms died of liver cancer on April 3, 1897. Although he was romantically linked to a number of women during his lifetime, he never married.

January 21, 2010

Why Brahms?

As we approach our next concert, many of our fans are asking, "Why Brahms?" So, what is a period-instrument orchestra that specializes in Baroque and Early-Classical music doing playing the works of Johannes Brahms? Well, our Music Director Nic will tell you why in the coming weeks with a five-part blog post. For now, enjoy this caricature of the composer that could not be any less accurate:

January 14, 2010

Happy Birthday, Nic!

While we won't get to celebrate Nic's birthday until February, the staff, musicians and singers of Philharmonia Baroque wish Nic a very Happy Birthday!

And now, for a slightly embarrassing photograph (from just a few years ago):

January 7, 2010

The Story of "A:" More about Baroque pitch

Since the title of our blog is A-415, we felt that one of our first blog posts of the new year should again address the issue of pitch, especially since this will be a major part of Nic's upcoming posts about our February concerts. David Wilson joins us once more to explain (he also warns that your geek alarms may sound...):

Baroque oboe legend
Bruce Haynes has researched the issue of historical pitches in detail. I suggest reading his book The Story of “A if this post interests you. Bruce points out that we talk about pitch levels by means of two coordinates, a pitch name and a frequency in hertz, e.g. “A-415.” For about the last century, the standard pitch level has been A-440, meaning that, wherever you go in the world, Western classical music is likely to be played at a pitch level in which the note A in the middle of the treble staff is tuned to 440 hz. (Editors note: a hertz is a unit of frequency – one cycle per second – that measures, in this case, the traveling wave or oscillation of pressure caused by vibrations that we discern as sound). Having a pitch standard is a convenience for musicians, nothing more.

Prior to the late 19th century, however, there were no universally recognized pitch standards. One could travel from one part of Europe or, in some cases, from one city to another and find music being made at different pitches. For a string player, this in no problem – the string can be tuned to any pitch (within reason) – but for a fixed-pitch instrument, like a flute or an oboe, this can be a huge problem. It might mean that if you were an oboist, you could play in tune with a violin band but not with the church organ, or you could form your own band with your friend with a recorder made in your village but not with your friend with a recorder from the next town over.

In the Baroque Era, pitch levels as high as A-465 (17th century Venice) and as low as A-392 (18th century France) are known to have existed. A few generalizations can be made:
  • pitch was high in North Germany and lower in South Germany
  • pitch was low in Rome but high in Venice
  • pitch in France depended on whether you were playing chamber music, opera or something else.
Pitch levels in the Renaissance and Middle Ages were similarly varied according to location and historical period. By the Classical period there was more interest in standardized pitch levels, again as a matter of convenience for traveling musicians.

One of the pitches used during the baroque period was A-415. Since 415 hz. is about a half-step below the modern standard of A-440, the pitch of A-415 was seized on as a convenient modern “baroque pitch” standard, because in the early days of the historical performance movement a harpsichord would sometimes play with groups at A-440 and sometimes at a lower pitch, and if the difference in pitch is a half-step, the keyboard could be made so that it slides over one string so that the A key played a string tuned to 440 hz. in one position and a string tuned to 415 hz. in the other position.

“So when you play baroque music, you tune to a G-sharp,” some people say at this point. Not so! We tune to an A, but we define the A differently depending on what kind of music we’re going to play. A baroque violinist may carry 4 different tuning forks (or one handy iPhone app), and a baroque flutist probably owns two or three different flutes at different pitches.

January 4, 2010

Decade in Review/Year in Review

And so ends the aughts with a year that few would like to remember... except maybe us. Our last year was critically acclaimed, artistically exciting and first one in some time that we have experienced growth in attendance (thank you!). Others noticed too and we were happy to see the orchestra and chorale appear on a few year end and decade end lists. There is so much to look forward to: we will announce our 2010-11 Season soon and hope you're as excited as we are for our 30th Anniversary!!!

What were your favorite Philharmonia Baroque moments of the year? The decade?

Jordi Savall's Jerusalem Best Album of the Year?

Steve Hochman, rock critic for Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, Spin and then some, declared Jordi Savall's Jerusalem the best album of the year (and maybe the decade) in his global music column "Around the World" on AOL's music blog Spinner.com. Jordi will be conducting and playing viola da gamba with the orchestra in March.