Saturday, October 16, 2010

Know Your London Orchestras! The Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment and the London Sinfonietta

After profiling the musically-varied London Philharmonic, I bring you stories of not one but two specialist orchestras, in one post!

This Saturday, the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment (oof, that's a bit of a mouthful, let's stick to OAE for short) and the London Sinfonietta joined together for night of courtly mashup. With their forces united on one stage, their numbers were a staggering... third of what the LPO has on a normal night. Ok, so both groups are small. But hey, bigger isn't always better. The real interest here is the fact that the musical specialties of the respective ensembles are polar opposites. The OAE is London's top early (like pre 1750 or so) music ensemble that doesn't play in a church while the Sinfonietta restricts its repertoire to the past hundred years. One would think that the ornaments of high Baroque and the abrasive harmonies of modernism don't have anything in common. But in their performance, the groups revealed that the very new subconsciously plunders quite a bit from the very old.

The centerpiece of the concert was Stravinsky's suite from the ballet "Pulcinella," based on the beak├ęd stock character of Italian comedia and music traditionally ascribed to Giovanni Pergolesi (though it could have been written by Domenico Gallo, Carlo Ignazio Monza, or the Count Unico Wilhelm van Wassenauer). Like a good art show, the OAE contextualized the Stravinsky by pairing it with other music by the possible "Pulcinella" composers. All of this music was filled with the familiar tropes of the galant style - those pesky "Pachabel's Canon" bass lines, the extended dominant pedal points - but there were also a few pleasingly weird moments. In Gallo's Trio Sonata for two violins, 'cello and continuo (fancy-shmanzy for accompanying harpsichord) there was a series of rapid modulations that moved the piece into a surprisingly far-away key. And although the Count Wassenauer was more known for his skills at diplomacy than music, the opening section of one of his "Concerti Armonici" featured rich dissonances among the florid counterpoint.

Many of Stravinsky's pieces are musical provocateurs and while "Pulcinella" certainly fits into this category, it is certainly not for the same reasons as the visceral and riotous (literally) "Rite of Spring." What is shocking about "Pulcinella" is how effortlessly Stravinsky-isms blend with the dated source material. For the most part, he doesn't stray far from the original Pergolessi (or Monza, whatever); there are no double-stacked bitonal chords here. When Stravinsky does throw in one of his trademarks, like a whirring flute texture straight out of Petrouchka or a jazzy trombone gliss, it's appropriately funny. These interruptions draw attention to themselves, yet they don't interrupt the flow of the music. Everything still hangs together, but how?

Jean Baptiste Lully, the reason why conductors today use small sticks
It really comes down to the rhythm, or the groove if you will. In the time of Pergolessi through Haydn or so, the orchestra was only about 30 men strong (as was the case in this performance, except that a majority of the men here were female), and rarely featured a conductor. The French composer Jean-Baptiste Lully from around the same period sought to popularize the technique of beating a staff on the ground to keep the orchestra together. However, Lully's death in a staff-related accident (he struck it through his foot and so contracted blood poisoning) prevented this from catching on. So, in order for the musicians to have any hope of staying together without the help of a beating staff, the music needed to have a strong regular pulse and the musicians needed to feel that pulse in a uniform way, hence the rhythmic verve common to almost all 18th century music. While 19th century composers came to emphasize harmony, gesture and just pure massive sound over tight rhythm, modernists like Stravinsky and Bartok rebelled against the pulseless excess, though usually by interpolating folk music. When Stravinsky began studying galant music to prepare for "Pulcinella," he said it was like looking in a mirror as much as looking to the past. The primacy of pulse is what links Scarlatti and Stravinsky, Rameau and Reich, Locatelli and Louis Andriessen.

So despite their contrasting specialties, the OAE and London Sinfonietta proved quite compatible partners. The music they play demands a strict interpretation of pulse, and so their reliable senses of time led to a wonderfully transparent and energetic performance. Dare I say Gallo grooves?

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