L ast October, I accidentally happened upon an American Baroque Orchestra (ABO) performance of Handel’s Messiah in a packed Marquand Chapel at Yale Divinity School.
It was a sing-along. Picking up a program, I squeezed in between a baritone and a soprano, and, after a momentary pause, an expectant silence, the American Baroque Orchestra’s bows dropped onto strings, and our voices filled the room.
Founded three years ago by Mark Bailey (pictured above)—Baroque violist, chief archivist of Yale University’s Historical Sound Recording department and musical director of the Yale Russian Chorus—the ABO was born out of a desire to make authentic Baroque music, which was all the rage between the early-17th and mid-18th centuries, today. It’s part of the broader historically informed performance movement, which aims to recreate Western music from certain time periods while strictly adhering to the aesthetic and artistic standards of those times. As it turns out, Yale is home to one of the first American performance groups to take up the movement’s clarion call: the Yale Collegium Musicum, founded by Paul Hindemith in the 1940s and still active today.
Bailey’s ABO follows in the Musicum’s pioneering footsteps. Over steaming cups of espresso, he summed up his ensemble: “The core group consists of about 12 string players, all performing on historical instruments. So we use violins, violas, and cellos with gut strings, period bows, the whole thing! When we use woodwinds and brass, they are of the period as well; when we add singers, the singers are also performing stylistically according to expectations of the time.” In the ABO, then, musicians are also historical reenactors.
If you’re wondering what could drive modern-day musicians and singers to participate in a proudly anachronistic ensemble, Joan Plana, the group’s concertmaster, has an answer: “One day you are at your lesson with your private teacher and the answer he gives about how to perform is not ‘enough’ for you,” he told me. “This curiosity is the appetite of the Baroque players.”
Plana should know, because he is one. He trained in Baroque performance at Case Western Reserve and Juilliard, and still regularly performs with Baroque orchestras (and more contemporary ones, too).
Whereas Plana’s long been keen on Baroque music, Bailey’s enthusiasm for it is an unexpected coda to an erstwhile indifference—perhaps even a mild dislike. He wasn’t “particularly a fan” of Baroque styling, and might have “even been called one of the critics of it.”
Then he had an ah-ha! moment listening to a recording of Bach’s Air on the G String led by Gustav Leonhardt, a renowned Dutch conductor. “Suddenly I [was] hearing, with extraordinary clarity, every single voice—how they interact and relate,” he said. “I just became so incredibly excited because I was hearing the music in an entirely new way.”
The rest is, well, history. Bailey got in touch with Jaap Schröder, another Dutch Baroque conductor (who had himself worked with Leonhardt). Under his tutelage, Bailey began to focus exclusively on Baroque music, leaving his former life as a modernistic violist behind. Bailey’s other passion, Slavic music, happened to dovetail nicely with his newfound interest in 17th- and 18th-century music; as a result, the ABO has become one of the few orchestras in the world that plays Slavic Baroque music.
Baroque composition (let alone the Slavic sort) is a subject we hardly discuss, something most of us are prone to lump under the wide umbrella of “classical music”—you know, the stuff we tend to enjoy in the background of films or work sessions or fancy cocktail parties.
But historically-informed Baroque music performance isn’t meant that way. Concertmaster Plana says the audience should “come to the concert knowing that they are going to live an experience.” The hard barrier many of us believe exists between listener and musician, marked by solemnity and propriety, need not apply so much. As Plana puts it, “Some of our concerts don’t differ so much from [those] at jazz clubs.”
Then there are moments like the one I experienced last October, in which even accidental spectators like me were welcome to join the chorus for an actual performance. As Messiah progressed, I could see each person in the audience lost in every spectacularly rendered chord. I glanced over at the musicians, who were seated fewer than 20 feet away, and the same elation was written on their faces as on ours.
You’ll have to wait until the ABO’s next season to try it yourself. The season-opening concert will come in the form of a gala on Saturday, October 12, 2013, in honor of the late Richard Warren, who Bailey credits as the inspiration to found the group in the first place.
Just be ready to party like it’s 1699.
American Baroque Orchestra
Written and photographed by Bijan Stephen.