Concert Preview: Grand Harmonie’s “March Madness”

We know that today’s concertgoers crave a more in-depth experience, so we thought, why don’t we hark back to earlier occasions which were equal parts socializing and entertainment?

Grand Harmonie. Photo: Hannah Shields.

Grand Harmonie — some sort of mischief might be afoot this weekend.  Photo: Hannah Shields.

By Jonathan Blumhofer

The period ensemble Grand Harmonie returns to the Boston area for two concerts this weekend under the heading “March Madness.” Friday’s, at the Somerville Armory, promises to be an “in-the-round” experience: more a party than a concert, the group’s website calls it. Sunday’s, at the Second Church in Newton, will be more traditional – though, again, Grand Harmonie’s website hints that some sort of mischief might be afoot there, too. In anticipation of the events, the ensemble’s concertmaster, Emily Dahl Irons, answered a few questions The Arts Fuse put to her via email. Our “conversation” follows below.

Arts Fuse: First of all, can you talk a little bit about the “March Madness” program, which seems to cover a lot of stylistic and expressive ground?

Emily Dahl Irons: Indeed! As an orchestra committed to making music of the 19th century come alive, we are presenting a concert that showcases a wild and wide range of music. Are we mad? This program is diverse in its emotion, its forces, and its energy. The anchor piece of the program is Beethoven’s First Symphony in C Major. Here, we really see a glimmer of what Beethoven will hit us with in later symphonies. While the form is rather conservative, the harmony and pacing are all “wrong.” The first movement doesn’t even begin in C major. The second movement andante cantabile includes a martial-like timpani. The third movement sounds like a swashbuckler who loses a leg and keeps on swinging. And the fourth movement is really just one big scale that builds and builds and somehow brings the house down.

Against that, we’ve paired the concert aria “Ah! Perfido” and Weber’s Horn Concertino, as well as the Overture from Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio arranged for a Harmonie (wind band).

The most literal “mad” piece on the program is “Ah! Perfido.” Here, our jilted damsel (Jacquelyn Stucker, soprano) is enraged that her lover has walked out on her. Filled with a lust for vengeance, she threatens him that the gods will surely punish him for leaving her. Yet her bitterness turns to regret as she realizes without him she will die alone. Like any good soap opera, the writing is filled with twists and turns, all hyperbolic in nature. When our damsel imagines the gods shooting down lightning at the lover, Beethoven gives us musical daggers. Yet when she begs him not to leave her alone, the strings get to play the most tender and soulful melody.

The Weber Concertino starts in an operatic way too, with a rather angsty solo horn line. Perhaps the horn gives the lover’s reply to the damsel? But this quickly gives way to lighthearted antics as Weber challenges our horn soloist Yoni Kahn with ever greater feats of acrobatics. At one point you’ll even hear him accompany himself with four-note chords – it’s wild!

And since we are Grand Harmonie after all, we thought it fitting to display our Harmonie (the wind section of the orchestra) in Mozart’s Overture to The Abduction from the Seraglio. The arrangement is quite possibly by Mozart himself and lets us explore a more seductive side, complete with exotic sounds from the oboe and percussion.

AF: How did you devise the idea for Friday’s in-the-round performance? Given how so many ensembles around the country are rethinking how they present classical music, can we expect more concerts like this? Or are such details presently under wraps?

EDI: We are always thinking of compelling ways to present our music. On the one hand, many ensembles currently like to use terms like “fresh” and “revolutionary” when selling their concert experience, but in a search for a concert model more appealing to today’s audiences, we at Grand Harmonie find ourselves looking to the past. When Beethoven’s First Symphony premiered in 1800, that concert included a potpourri of pieces, including Beethoven’s piano concerto (no. 2), a Mozart symphony and a collection of arias from Haydn’s The Creation (which had premiered the year prior).

We know that today’s concertgoers crave a more in-depth experience, so we thought, why don’t we hark back to earlier occasions which were equal parts socializing and entertainment? We want our audience to participate as much as they can in the event, so we are encouraging them to ask questions, to get up and move around for different vantage points, and to generally explore everything we will have on exhibit.

Grand Harmonie has always been comfortable talking with our audience and we thought let’s officially name an MC for the evening (Scott) and have a fun time drinking and exploring this raucous, wacky, and impassioned music! The more interaction that can happen between performers and audience, the more meaningful the performance becomes for both sides of the experience.

AF: Scott Allen Jarrett is a pretty big name when it comes to choral conductors (though I know he also does a fair amount of orchestra directing, too). Is this the first time he’s worked with Grand Harmonie? What’s it like working with him and does he bring some particular insights from the world of choral/vocal music to your performances of instrumental repertoire?

Soprano Jacquelyn Strucker.

Soprano Jacquelyn Strucker.

EDI: We’ve been dreaming of working with Scott for years and we finally get the chance! I love working with directors that have a vocal background because they tend to have a strong sense of drama and are attuned to the craft of storytelling, and Scott is an excellent example of this talent. Case in point, when we began reading through the horn concertino, Scott asked us to pay particular attention to the horn line and to envision it like a singer’s, not an instrumentalist’s. We need to make space for Yoni’s breathing and to know when he needs extra time for a particular horn effect, or when we should push him forward in order to help launch a particularly impassioned section. And of course with the aria, the pacing and timing of Jacquelyn’s line not only depends on the text, the melody, and the need for breathing, but also on the time it takes to go from one emotion to another. You can tell that Scott knows this intimately when you watch how he crafts the pacing of the piece. Even with the symphony, Scott makes us keenly aware of articulation, i.e. our diction with our bows and tongues. We need to play our instruments as if we are speaking our parts so that each figure, no matter how quickly it passes, is understood to the audience. The themes in the First Symphony are full of quick moving consonants and it can be tricky to get out a mouthful of rhythms (even as a string player!) on time.

AF: Your own background is as a Baroque violinist and, while there’s a lot of overlap between Baroque and Classical repertoire, there are obviously quite a number of stylistic and technical differences between composers and pieces, too. In your playing experience, have you found particular characteristics that carry over between, say, a Handel opera and something like The Abduction from the Seraglio or “Ah! Perfido”? Or between a Bach orchestral suite and a Beethoven symphony? How does the experience of playing one impact your approach to the other?

EDI: Absolutely, I definitely see similarities between a Handel opera, a Mozart overture, and a Beethoven symphony or aria. Composers from this period were immersed in music of all genres, with the pinnacle being opera, as it incorporated instrumental music, dance, drama, voice, you name it! They all knew how to write vocally and instrumentally and the best artists (composers and musicians) draw inspiration from each other. I mentioned the tender melody the strings get to play in “Ah! Perfido.” Here, just as with a melody by Handel, we have to put ourselves in the body and mind of a singer, so that our bows become our breath, and we don’t just mumble the line, but truly sing it with all it’s emotional ups and downs.

Another of my favorite concepts to explore when performing music in an historically informed way is maximizing the diversity within the music. If you picture anything crafted before the Industrial Revolution, it was nearly always handmade. This means each piece has its own little quirks and signatures – nothing is uniform or homogenous. I try to approach each phrase in the same way, both in Bach and Beethoven. If the winds have a long smooth line, I try to make my notes short and peppery underneath. For another example, the fourth movement of the Beethoven symphony begins rather seriously, with a large chord from the whole orchestra. Then the first violins seem to test the water, starting with a tiny fragment of a scale, and gradually adding notes and gaining confidence on each entrance. When the violins finally know where they are going, they take off running and taunt the rest of the orchestra to join them. I find it’s this contrast of serious against humorous that makes the music really crackle.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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