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The contrast between classical-period instruments and modern ones is a bit like that between an original vinyl recording and a CD remastering.

Concert Review: The American Classical Orchestra Plays Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert on Period Instruments (March 12 2015)

Thomas Crawford conducts the American Classical Orchestra
Thomas Crawford conducts the American Classical Orchestra

For much of the American Classical Orchestra‘s concert at Alice Tully Hall the other night, I could close my eyes and forget I was at a period-instruments performance.

One reason was the presence of the stupendously good American Classical Orchestra Chorus, along with superb soloists, on two of the program’s four pieces, Mozart’s “Coronation” Mass and the “Hallelujah” chorus from Beethoven’s “Christ on the Mount of Olives” oratorio. After all, there’s nothing “period” about soprano, alto, tenor, and bass human voices.

Another reason: With eyes closed, you can forget you’re in a large concert hall, and appreciate the warm sound of gut strings on period instruments without thinking about how something’s subtly different, even if the violins and cellos look like modern ones. Even valveless natural horns can pass for modern French horns when they’re not playing an exposed passage (or being looked at).

The contrast between classical-period instruments and modern ones is a bit like that between an original vinyl recording and a CD remastering. In the intimate space inside my head, the period instruments playing Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert sounded as natural as Mozart does on my old Budapest Quartet LPs, or Genesis’ Foxtrot does on the vinyl I bought in the ’70s.

The concert opened with a forceful performance of Beethoven’s cinematic Overture to Egmont. From the delicious opening unison declaration and the dramatic chord sequence that follows, through the tensely energetic development (and, like a scratch in the vinyl, to a single bum woodwind note at the end), Maestro Thomas Crawford and the orchestra revealed the full measure of their period-instrument bona fides.

Thomas Crawford conducts the American Classical Orchestra and Chorus
Thomas Crawford conducts the American Classical Orchestra and Chorus

After that rousing start, the soloists and chorus joined the orchestra for Mozart’s “Coronation” Mass. Soprano Sherezade Panthaki unveiled a voice as expressive as it is beautiful and strong. Especially in the final “Agnus Dei” movement, she sang as if really communicating, putting multiple colors into even simple passages. Tenor Marc Molomot matched her in feeling, joining her in the opening “Kyrie,” and baritone Michael Kelly and mezzo-soprano Sarah Nelson Craft (singing alto) joined them with sterling tones in the “Gloria” as affirmative force gave way to Mozart’s sublime writing for four solo voices.

The chorus shone in the “Credo” and everywhere else it sang. Whereas among the soloists the exquisite-voiced Ms. Panthaki could (and once or twice did) drown out the other voices, the chorus sustained a good balance whether singing piano or forte.

The climactic “Welen singen Dank und Ehre” from Beethoven’s rarely-performed first oratorio Christus am Ölberge (Christ on the Mount of Olives) opened with a burnished solo from tenor Marc Day of the chorus and continued in creditable fashion, a few limp moments from the strings not spoiling what seemed to me an overall successful performance of this work I’d never heard before. Maestro Crawford told me an in interview that like many orchestra directors today, and like critics of Beethoven’s time, he’s not enthusiastic about the oratorio as a whole – it was Beethoven’s first – but the ACO’s selection did show why this particular movement did become popular.

The horn solo that opens Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C Major was perhaps the evening’s defining moment for the flavor of period instruments. These valveless horns have a somewhat more muted, and somehow more organic, sound than do today’s French horns, transporting us back nearly two centuries to the last years of Franz Schubert’s brief, brilliant life. Never performed publicly during the composer’s lifetime, this difficult symphony requires much of the performers: precise rhythmic solidarity and sudden tempo shifts in the first movement, surprising turns in the long and agreeably weird andante second movement, comfortable homeyness spiced with intricate polyrhythms in the scherzo, and a thunderous close to the finale. The ACO was at its very best in this wonderful work throughout, and I can’t remember ever enjoying Schubert’s orchestral music more.

At its next concert, on April 21, the American Classical Orchestra will perform Caldara’s Maddalena ai piedi di Christo with soprano Hana Blažíková and music by Handel and Allegri, and a trumpet concerto by Torelli.

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is a Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he visits every park in New York City. And by night he's a part-time working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.

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