Handel Period Instrument Orchestra
Handel Choir of Baltimore performs baroque, classical and early-romantic music with instruments modeled on those used in original performances.
An Introduction to Period Instruments
The following introduction is excerpted from program notes authored by Christolph Richter, concertmaster of the Handel Choir Period Instrument Orchestra, and Melinda O'Neal.
Music in the baroque and classical style eras was performed on instruments of different construction from our present-day instruments. The tone colors of those instruments, intended for smaller spaces and fewer singers, was more varied and transparent; phrasing was more specifically articulated; ornaments were employed more readily; a smaller number of players and singers was used; the resulting sound had a nuanced, inclusive and intimate feel.
In the last thirty years, numerous ensembles in the United States and abroad have adopted a more historically informed performance approach. The Handel Period Instrument Orchestra, organized specifically to perform in partnership with the Handel Choir, is founded on principles of historical performance practices. It consists of professional musicians who specialize in playing instruments constructed near the time of the music's composition, or replicas. It is truly exciting to recapture the distinctive sounds closer to what was in the composer's ears, and we are pleased that our organization, grounded in the performance aesthetic of baroque music through our namesake composer, George Frideric Handel, is performing with these considerations in the forefront.
A look at the programming of major symphony orchestras over the last 30 years will reveal that the performance of baroque and, to a lesser extent, classical repertoires have either disappeared or been considerably curtailed. The reason for this is the advent of period instrument performance practice.
Decades of musicological research and relentless pioneering work by performers interested in historically accurate performance has made it possible for today's instrumentalists to perform the music of the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries on instruments resembling those of the period in which the music was written. Quite a few instruments from different time periods and regions survive, making it possible for expert modern instrument makers to build copies or reconstructions of these originals. In the case of wind instruments, replicas are usually used since most of the originals became unplayable over time. In the case of string instruments, affordable copies and "unaltered" originals are most often used.
The term "unaltered" refers to the transformations that the majority of 17th- and 18th-century violins underwent in the 19th century to increase sound volume and tonal brilliancy. This was deemed necessary to project the sound in larger concert halls and to keep in step with evolving tastes. The sound of a "modern" violin is spectacular and in many ways is considered an improvement, but the tone quality and articulative possibilities are quite different from the instruments for which Bach, Handel, Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven composed.
Rediscovery of the "old" sound and the "old" performance practices that fit so well the music of its time has been an incredibly thrilling experience. It is in some ways the closest we can come to time-travel. This excitement has led to the establishment of music ensembles exclusively dedicated to performing baroque, classical and early romantic music on the instruments constructed to play that repertoire. Audiences have started to realize that, once they hear Bach's St. Matthew Passion or a Lully opera on period instruments and with singers sensitive to historical stylistic differences, it is nearly impossible to go back. A good period instrument performance will peel away the layers of stylistic add-ons and allow the listener to experience the entire architecture of a work with astonishing clarity. The music is filled with new clarity, life and vibrancy.
Some major differences between period string instruments and their modern descendents include:
- modern instruments construction increased the angle of the neck to the main body of the violin, thereby increasing the tension of the strings. This in turn added power and projection to the sound. The perriod instruments have less string tension, which creates a more subtle, less projected sound.
- period strings were made of gut, as opposed to modern steel, which produces a warmer sound.
- period bows are lighter and more tapered, which allows more delicate, nuanced articulations.
- period instruments are tuned to a lower pitch (A = 396 to 431, depending on the repertoire, as opposed to the modern A = 440), and this lower pitch produces a warmer sound.
Among performance approaches used in "old" historical styles, a few include:
- fairly consistent use of straight tone; vibrato was used only selectively as an ornament to decorate or "warm up" certain notes;
- increased use of rhythmic hierarchy leading to greater differentiation of strong and weak beats within a given time signature;
- an imperative to ornament and improvise more generously.
Christof Richter concertmaster
Christof Richter earned his Bachelor and Master of Music in violin performance at the Peabody Institute. He furthered his studies in Vienna at the Konservatorium der Stadt Wien and has participated in the Taos Chamber Music Festival, New England Bach Festival, Baroque Performance Institute at Oberlin, and the Institut für Musik und Kirche, Bressanone, Italy. A frequent performer in the Baltimore-Washington-Philadelphia area, Mr. Richter also regularly returns to his native Colombia, South America for recitals and concerto appearances. He has been concertmaster of the Washington Bach Consort and has performed with the Folger Consort, the Philadelphia Classical Symphony, La Trempesta di Mare, Brandywine Baroque, Philomel, Violins of Lafayette, Public Musick of Rochester, Pro Musica Rara of Baltimore and the Four Nations Ensemble of New York. Currently Mr. Richter plays with the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, and he teaches at the Levine School of Music in Washington D.C.
photos by Will Kirk