ALERT: The UW Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of music director UW-Madison Professor James Smith, will perform a FREE concert on this Sunday night at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall. The program features “Mathis der Mahler” by Paul Hindemith and the Symphony No. 1 by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius.
By Jacob Stockinger
The pioneering conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt (below) died this past week.
He was 86. He had been ill, and died only three months after his last public appearance on the concert stage.
He leaves behind a huge recorded legacy, some 560 entries — including many multiple-disc boxes — according to a search at Amazon.com.
Harnoncourt started as a concert-level cellist who was especially well-known for who conducting early music. But he also worked with more modern orchestra groups and soloists in a lot of big mainstream music. (Below, in photo from Getty Images, he is seen conducting in 2012.)
True, it for his Johann Sebastian Bach, his Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his Ludwig van Beethoven — done with the group he and his wife Alice founded, the Concentus Musicus Wien — that The Ear will most remember him for. They were strong and forceful. No music box Mozart for Harnoncourt!
But Harnoncourt refused to be pigeonholed into smaller Baroque ensembles.
The Ear also likes him with much larger modern groups in mainstream Romantic fare such as the symphonies and concertos by Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, Anton Bruckner and Antonin Dvorak with the Royal Concertgebouw of Amsterdam, the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic. He even conducted Johann Strauss waltzes for the New Year’s Concerto from Vienna.
Harnoncourt often found beauty in unexpected places, in music that we thought had nothing new to say after so many performances and such a long history. But he loved vibrancy and modernity. He did what Ezra Pound advised poets to do: Make it new.
And boy, did Harnoncourt — a thoughtful and passionate advocate — ever make music new, whether it was Baroque, Classical or Romantic! Although he was not a pioneer of new music per se, he always seemed to turn early music or whatever else he touched into new music.
The Ear recalls with relish some of the ways he put percussion and brass forward in early music, giving incredible rhythm and impulse or momentum to it. The same goes for using boy sopranos instead of women in the cantatas, oratorios and passions by Johann Sebastian Bach.
Harnoncourt always seemed less interested in authenticity as a justification than in the results he got from such changes or such different interpretations.
Often Harnoncourt had certain differences he wanted to emphasize. They were not always convincing, but they were usually convincing. And they were always interesting and illuminating, even if you disagreed with them.
In the special memorial YouTube video at the bottom is the Sinfonia from J.S. Bach’s Cantata BWV 156 in a performance by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Concentus Musicus of Vienna:
Here are some illuminating obituaries:
From The New York Times:
From the Deceptive Cadence blog on NPR (National Public Radio) by Anastasia Tsioulcas:
From The Guardian in the United Kingdom:
From The Washington Post:
And finally, here is a story from MTV, which called Harnoncourt the “punk genius of classical music,” a description The Ear likes and which he suspects Harnoncourt himself would have liked:
Do you have an observation about Nikolaus Harnoncourt to share?
Is there a specific composer, work or recording of his that you hold special?
Leave word in the COMMENT section.
The Ear wants to hear.