In Defense of Period Performance: A Tale of Two Orchestras

I had the privilege of attending two concerts in the Boston area in the past month: one given by the Boston Baroque at Jordan Hall on October 28, and another given by the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Hall on November 3.

On November 3rd, the BSO, under the direction of Andris Nelsons, performed a very diverse program, particularly considering that the program contained only three pieces – Haydn’s 93rd Symphony, the American premier of English composer Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Remembering: In Memoriam Evan Scofield, and Elgar’s Enigma Variations. The latter two received the sort of justice that an orchestra as fine as the BSO can provide. The excellent musicianship demonstrated by the ensemble orchestra in both pieces left little to be criticized.

The Haydn, however, was underwhelming. That is not to say that Mr. Nelson and the instrumentalists under his baton showed any sign of incompetence; rather, the issues with the piece arose from the very nature of the musical language employed by modern, large symphony orchestras. In my opinion, the bloated string section, the cloyingly sweet winds, and Mr. Nelson’s unadventurous interpretation rendered Haydn’s work excessively saccharine. The performance masked the effervescent charm that naturally suffuses Haydn’s music, weighing it down with syrupy phrasing and dynamics. The articulations of notes felt so sanitized that the performance would have felt more at home in a hospital ward than Symphony Hall. These faults were particularly frustrating because they could have easily been fixed by Mr. Nelson by simply removing a few stands of strings and by encouraging the wind players to be more soloistic in their playing.

The Boston Baroque, on the other hand, demonstrated the effectiveness of historical performance when executed correctly. The program on October 28th featured the Seventh Symphony of Haydn’s great student Beethoven, as well Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto and Divertimento in F (K.622 and K.138, respectively). Though imperfect, the performance provided an example of how period performance practices can allow an ensemble to avoid certain pitfalls of modern symphony orchestras. The smaller string sections allowed the individual players to react to each other in a manner lost when more stands are present; this shift alone enabled a more vibrant, almost chamber music-like sound. Another one of the most notable sonic differences came from the wind section. The difference in timbre between modern and period-style instruments is immense; period instruments create a section sound which resembles less the dark richness of a symphonic band and more the colorful individuality of an ensemble of vocal soloists. And, of course, the physical limitations of these instruments created a marvelous effect during the Beethoven: one could clearly hear the way in which he stretched the contemporary orchestra to its sonic limits, which produces a thrilling amount of energy and tension difficult to replicate on modern instruments.

I must confess that I was skeptical of period performance before, finding it fussy and trivial. However, after these performances, I can say with certainty that the Church of Historical Instruments has a new convert!

Paul Georgoulis is a host for WHRB Classical. You can hear his upcoming orgy on Comic Opera Overtures on December 7th, 2018 from 1-10pm.