Old Instrument Blend

Using “historical” instruments in the orchestra.
Being fortunate enough to perform on tour with the Australian Chamber Orchestra recently, I have some very positive impressions about using authentic instruments.

The central work of the program was Beethoven Symphony No. 6 and along with gut strings, the winds and brass played copies of “classical” instruments tuned to A=430. First of all, this is an orchestra that plays conductor-less, stands up, and approaches everything as if it were chamber music - eye contact, communication, and extraordinary energy and commitment between the players. So already, this sets them apart from the mainstream orchestra, with its employee attitude, eye on the clock, and musical passivity.

The sound of the classical instruments is a revelation; it restores my faith in “the orchestra” as a vibrant and relevant ensemble. I hear things radiating from the core string sound in Beethoven’s writing for the first time. The spatial and tonal spectrum of the strings is enhanced and amplified by the introduction of beautifully blending wind instruments. The wind sound so delicate but focused, that the ears are tricked into initially thinking that these are further string colours, until a bassoon or flute is revealed, before dissolving back into the texture.

The further the instruments are geographically and tonally from the string epicentre, the more judiciously they are used (e.g., trombones). This gives me fresh reason for questioning the way brass instruments (especially trombones) have become so large in the modern orchestra. I’m very happy about the instrument manufacturing advances that have resulted in flexibility and ease of playing, but not happy that we are unwittingly forcing orchestras (strings) to play louder. The magic blend has gone, especially coupled with the huge size of concert halls.

What about the pitch? As a player, one needs a day or so to adjust and then it works beautifully. I object to self proclaimed pitch experts who, wishing to assert their extraordinary musical sensitivity, say how “unsettling” and “unnatural” altering the basis tuning is. A flexible musician can change instrument, acoustic, century, dynamic, style, and continent with ease but is suddenly crippled when the tuning changes? If an actor can change accents, a writer can tailor a piece for a particular medium or audience, cannot a musician shift the pitch centre without too much fuss?

On the point of tuning I’ve always maintained “playing in tune” to be foremost about blend and balance of sound, knowledge/feeling for position in chord and harmonic progression, as well as openness and willingness to work with other players. Why do “classical” musicians wince and carry on when something is “out of tune”, but blithely continue with poor sense of time, insensitive balance, and obviously playing in the wrong spot though “reading what the part says”?

Smaller orchestras, especially those using early instruments, are enjoying huge interest amongst top musicians as well as audiences. Listeners can experience the wonderful process of collaboration taking place at close range, and this is reinforced by a refreshingly new and lively sound. Revisiting the past through mastery of the earlier instruments is essential if we wish to ensure that the classical symphony orchestra stays energetically informed and manoeuverable in today’s sonic maelstrom.
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