This month the New York Philharmonic again splits into two smaller ensembles during the week before Christmas (December 20-23). As has been the annual tradition since 2002, one half will travel to The Riverside Church for Handel's Messiah; this year's conductor is Harry Bicket, just named artistic director of the distinguished period-instrument ensemble The English Concert, as of September 2007. The Orchestra's other program also offers Baroque masterpieces, by J.S. Bach and Corelli as well as by Handel, conducted by Bernard Labadie, director of the Quebec City-based Les Violons du Roy, which is known for performing early music on modern instruments. In the following conversation, moderated by David Wright, the two discuss their approaches to the performance of Baroque repertoire.
The "original instruments movement" calls for playing early music on the kinds of instruments used when the works were composed, as well as for historically-informed interpretive choices. How did it begin?
Harry Bicket: For much of the 20th century, the major conductors performed not only Wagner and Strauss, but also Bach's Passions. Those Stokowski transcriptions of Bach for large orchestra sound great, on their own terms. Then in the 1970s [Nikolaus] Harnoncourt came out of the cello section of the Vienna Philharmonic and took a radically different path in Baroque performance.
Bernard Labadie: The first period-instrument orchestras [30 years ago] had to be almost extremist, to get their point across. But now things are not so strict. My own orchestra uses modern instruments, albeit with the Baroque bow for the strings, which produces a different sound.
But in these concerts the musicians will be using modern instruments.
BL: With old instruments or new instruments, you want to understand the music from the point of view of the composer and his time. Great musicians like the ones of the Philharmonic are very flexible in their technique, which is an absolute necessity in order to achieve an historically-informed performance on modern instruments.
HB: It's time that symphony orchestras reclaim this music. The question always is, "Does it touch you, does it move you?"
As period-performance specialists, what are your feelings about playing this music on modern instruments?
BL: The audience doesn't come to see you dust off old furniture, or to see you win a history debate. To understand the music from the inside, and communicate that — that's what makes it "modern."
The original instruments debate seems to have revitalized the interest in earlier repertoire.
HB: If there's a boom in Baroque music now it's because these works are tuneful and fresh — and there's still a wealth of repertoire waiting to be discovered. [For all its familiarity] I'm glad to be coming back to Messiah. This piece is not so operatic as Handel's other oratorios — he's an older and wiser composer; he understands the role of "oratory" in an oratorio. I think that's why so many people can sing this music by heart.
David Wright is a former Program Annotator of the New York Philharmonic.