Back In Time

Classic Arts Features   Back In Time
The English Concert's Artistic Director Harry Bicket discusses the challenges and rewards of performing Baroque operas.

The English Concert is among the finest chamber orchestras in the world. With a combined force of modern reproductions and authentic Baroque instruments: including gut strings made from natural fibers (rather than today's practice of using steel or synthetic materials) and natural horns (which give the performer precise control over each pitch): The English Concert begins a three-year partnership with Carnegie Hall to present Handel operas and oratorios in concert, beginning with Radamisto. In a recent conversation with Jeremy Geffen, Carnegie Hall's director of artistic planning, The English Concert's Artistic Director Harry Bicket discussed the challenges and rewards of performing Baroque operas.

One of the things that you've done with The English Concert was introduce singers and opera into the ensemble's performances. Why was that important?

The history of The English Concert, like many of these orchestras, is the history of its artistic leaders. The English Concert has only had three in its 30-something _year history. Trevor Pinnock, who founded it, is one of the world's great harpsichordists. A lot of the rep in his day was centered on his playing. They moved on to bigger stuff with their recording contracts, but basically the orchestra was founded with him very much as the central instrumental and musical leader. His successor, Andrew Manze, is obviously a fantastic violinist, so suddenly you saw The English Concert doing violin concertos: both on the later end with Mozart, but also on the earlier end with Biber and Schmelzer and all these fantastic early Italian masters. I am a keyboard player, but I wouldn't pretend to be Trevor Pinnock. My background very much was in opera, working with singers and in oratorio. To be honest, a period orchestra that doesn't do the great passions, the cantatas, the oratorios, the choral repertoire, seems to me an orchestra that is missing out on absolutely core repertoire from the 18th century.

When one looks at Handel operas, Radamisto does not seem the most obvious choice to begin this project. What makes this piece so unusual, or so special?

The whole history of the revival of Handel operas in the 20th century is really interesting. He was far more celebrated as an opera writer than an oratorio writer, and yet, Messiah is probably his best-known work, and after that Water Music and Fireworks Music. He wrote almost 40 operas. Some of them are total masterpieces and some of them are flawed masterpieces, but there are still a lot that are brilliant pieces, which are ready to be discovered. We came on Radamisto because it's a really strong musical piece. The exciting thing is finding a new piece from the 18th century.

When talking about this type of repertoire being performed by an ensemble such as The English Concert, what is the preferred terminology: Period performance? Early music?

If I had my way, the labels of "period," "historically informed performance," "authentic," "ancient," would all be banned. I think, quite rightly now, we are being judged not whether we're playing with gut (natural) strings or natural horns, but whether we play well, and whether or not we're a good orchestra. For a long time, it was a useful marketing strategy to say, "This is exactly the sound that Handel had in mind." Now, I think it's time that we just have to be judged properly against ensembles playing on modern instruments. Of course, our sound is different, but what's interesting to me is what we bring musically.

When you're preparing a program or looking at a larger piece: something like Radamisto, for instance: what sort of sources do you use? Are there manuscripts that are extant?

Yes, but of course the manuscripts for Handel operas are actually not performance scores. They are clean copies, so you don't have any kind of annotation on them. They don't really tell you what was done in performance because these pieces were like Broadway musicals. Handel would write a lot of material for Radamisto, but we know each time he revived it, he changed this, he cut that, he wouldn't do that aria, a different singer would come in so he'd rewrite that aria, that little section didn't work very well dramaturgically so he'd put that scene there. The scores that we have for Handel operas are a sort of compendium of all the material that was associated with the larger work, but it's not necessarily what was done in real life. It's a bit of a jigsaw puzzle. You look at it and you think, "What actually works here?" And for modern audiences, I'm quite conscious that there's no point in being dogmatic and producing a worthy but overlong and tedious piece, when you're trying to persuade people that actually it's really riveting and fast moving.

It does strike me that you have such a degree of freedom in this repertoire because there are so many questions.

Oftentimes all that exists is a bass line, a vocal line, and a few suggestions of what chords might be played, but there's no reference of voicing, dynamics, tempo, articulation, orchestration, and so on. You just have to look at the text. What is this person saying? How are they saying it? How do we try and color that? How do we help tell that emotion? It may be a different emotion. Maybe the singer is saying one thing, and the orchestra's telling you something else. There are so many different levels, but that's also what I love about this repertoire. When you do a piece by Stravinsky or Britten, your main challenge is desperately to do everything they ask, which is kind of impossible because every note has about five instructions and it's often just impossible to actually do all those things. In the 18th century, you have a note that has only a definition of pitch, no indication whatsoever about attack, tempo, affect, color, or dynamic. I love that. I love the fact that you have the freedom but also the responsibility to try and make it come to life.

Handel operas seem to elicit extreme reactions from audiences. To what do you attribute this?

There are those who are fans of Handel opera: people who get excited and really get it: and other people who quite openly say to me, "Ugh, Handel opera and all those da capo arias": arias where you have a section followed by a shorter section followed by the repeat of the first section. But the da capo aria is like real life. It's quite normal if you spend maybe five minutes saying, "I really love this person," but then you spend two minutes saying, "But that person betrayed me," before returning to your original thought, "But I really love that person." This, to me, is a very human emotion. I think if you just get over the idea that the music is being repeated and get into the sense that the repetition of the music is something completely different, it's totally transformative. This is real emotion. It's real time.

And what does The English Concert bring to that storytelling?

In terms of the orchestra, something that people say to me is that what they love is the sheer sense of communication and joy. The fact that we don't play together every day, week in and week out, means that when we do perform this repertoire, and particularly when we come on a trip like this to Carnegie Hall, we are just so excited and so happy and so joyful in making the music.

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