The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: How does a Haydn symphony fit in a baroque program? Part 2 of 2 of a talk with Trevor Stephenson

October 1, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Bach Musicians (below)– who I think are Madison’s premier early music-period instrument ensemble -– will open their new season this weekend with a concert of Baroque orchestral music and concertos.

MBM will perform and Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at the First Congregational Church, 1609 University Ave.

The program includes: Corelli’s Concerto Grosso; Vivaldi’s Bassoon Concerto, with guest soloist UW bassoonist Marc Vallon
 (below) on the baroque bassoon; J.S. Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C Major; and 
Haydn’s Symphony No. 26 in D minor (“Lamentation”), one of the Storm-and-Stress symphonies known for their depth of emotional feeling and expression.

Saturday performance is at 8 p.m. with a pre-concert lecture by MBM artistic director Trevor Stephenson at 7:15 p.m.

On Sunday, the concert is at 3 p.m. with a 2:15 p.m. pre-concert lecture.

The Ear thinks Stephenson (below) is a terrific explainer. He is knowledgeable, witty and accessible. So I highly recommend attending the pre-concert lectures.

Tickets are cash or check only – no credit cards.

Advance tickets are $20 for general admission, $15 for students and seniors over 65. They are available at A Room of One’s Own; Orange Tree Imports; Willy Street Coop; Farley’s House of Pianos; and Ward-Brodt Music Mall.

Tickets at the door are $25 for general admission, $20 for students and seniors over 65.

For information, call (608) 238-6092 or visit:

Stephenson recently agreed to an e-mail interview for The Ear about the upcoming concerts. Today offers the last of a two-part interview:

Vivaldi (below) is very well-known for his “Four Seasons” and “Gloria.” But so much of his other work seems underestimated, especially after Stravinsky said he rewrote the same concerto 600 times. How do you see Vivaldi’s historical importance and aesthetic value and how he is viewed today?

Stravinsky may have been one of Vivaldi’s detractors, but J. S. Bach was a Vivaldi admirer. We know that Bach studied Vivaldi’s music a great deal, transcribing several of Vivaldi’s violin concertos into harpsichord solos. Bach, throughout his life, modeled his ritornello writing on Vivaldi’s groundbreaking concertos.

I  believe that Bach (below) learned from Vivaldi how to write irregular phrase structures that somehow sound even and rounded; it is an astonishingly difficult trick. Vivaldi had a great flair for melodic invention and I think most of his music will endure.

What would you say about UW professor Marc Vallon and the difficulties of playing the baroque bassoon?

Marc is a virtuoso on both the baroque bassoon AND the modern—a rare breed of performer indeed. I’ve heard him play, even in a single recital, both instruments at a world-class level.

This is no small feat. The baroque bassoon is terribly fussy, particularly for modern players venturing in for the first time. The set up is so different that even an excellent modern player can sound like a Billy goat for the first six months of playing the baroque.

The advantage of the baroque bassoon in baroque music is the dark warmth of its tone color combined with the fact that like all baroque instruments it is very articulate and quick to speak. The baroque bassoon is a perfect partner for the harpsichord and the baroque cello in rendering the dance-like intricacies of the continuo bass line.

Marc will play on this concert a remarkable concerto by Vivaldi that carries the title “La Notte” or “The Night.” The work’s programmatic portrayal of how the night transforms into the beauties of dawn is magical.

How would you situate the Haydn symphony within Haydn’s 104 symphonies and how does it relate to other works on the program?

I wanted to have a symphony by Haydn (below) on the program for a number of reasons. First, it is simply great music that sounds fantastic on late-baroque or early classical period instruments. The gut strings have such clarity of pitch and articulation; they really help bring out the mercurial quality of Hadyn’s writing.

Remember, that gut strings were used until the 1920s, so historically Haydn is just the tip of the iceberg as far as period sound goes: Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, Brahms, Verdi, Tchaikovsky, Debussy–and yes even the orchestra for the premiere of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” in 1913–all were composed for gut strings.

The period winds and brass also have a beautiful and engaging. The horns we’ll be using are late 18th-century model hand horns that play in one tonality at a time (there are no valves). The advantage of this is a compelling openness of sound that is thrilling in the joyous sections and very tender in the quieter passages.

I also wanted to show what Haydn shares with his Baroque predecessors and how he goes down new paths. For instance, the finale of Symphony 26 is a minuet, a dance form from the late-Baroque (early 18th century). In Haydn’s hands, the minuet begins to make a nod towards Classical homophony, that is, the bass line becomes less melodic and more harmonic than its Baroque predecessor.

The result is a greater angularity and increased harmonic blocky-ness in Haydn’s treatment; this is of course quite intentional on his part and lends the music a rustic charm. Compare this with the Bach minuet in his C major Orchestral Suite, which we’ll play on the first part of the program.

Posted in Classical music

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