Thursday , June 20 2024
I've heard it said many times and I agree that the period-instrument movement was one of the two or three most refreshing and lifeblood-giving events in a century to keep classical music alive.

Interview: Thomas Crawford, Conductor of the American Classical Orchestra, on Performing Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert on Original Instruments

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

The American Classical Orchestra and Chorus under the baton of Thomas Crawford will present “As the Masters Heard It: Music by Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert” at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall in New York on March 12. Performed entirely with original instruments, the program will consist of Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 (“Great”), Mozart’s Coronation Mass in C, and two works by Beethoven: the brief but dramatic Egmont Overture and an excerpt from “Christ on the Mount of Olives.”

Maestro Crawford was kind enough to speak with me about this music, his own background, and some of the challenges of period-instrument performance of great classical works.

Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 (“Great”) in C Major has some very prominent passages for the brass, and these instruments have evolved significantly since classical times. What period instruments can the audience expect to hear and see in this piece?

The whole orchestra is a “period instrument.” They use classical instruments in this case and they’re all different [from modern versions]. The Schubert Ninth Symphony has wonderful brass parts; in fact it opens with this gorgeous stentorian horn solo, and since they’re using valveless horns, some of the notes sound stopped, a really good example of exactly what you’re talking about. When you listen to that beautiful horn solo with a modern orchestra – and all the great orchestras and orchestra conductors have recorded this piece – it sounds even and beautiful, whereas with period horns the notes are not the same, some sound darker, some brighter, some more nasal. They sound different from each other and it’s gorgeous, I love it.

What about the string instruments? We don’t think of those as having changed so much over time, with top violinists still playing centuries-old Stradivarius instruments for example.

They have changed, the strings are different [gut vs. steel], but people kept playing those old instruments. The wood and the tone generally speaking improve with age, whereas the brass and the woodwinds are not usable after so much time.

All of the period instruments that our players use are very meticulous replicas, every bit the quality that was produced in the 18th and 19th centuries, made by builders around the world, including in America, and especially in the Netherlands. They’ll use a flute from a collection as the model, for example, and a new flute is made with very exact measurements and materials.

There are also trombones that are very prominent in Schubert’s Ninth Symphony, probably the best trombone parts of any classical symphony, the best to play and most enjoyable. The trombone has changed the least of all of any instrument. It was a slide instrument back when it was a sackbut. The bore is a little smaller, it’s a thinner instrument and the mouthpiece is different, but other than that it’s very much the same.

There can be ambiguous terminology too. The score of the Coronation Mass calls for “violone.” What instrument plays this part with the ACO?

It’s a bass. One of our bass players uses a five-string bass sometimes, a Viennese violine, but I don’t think he’ll use it for this concert. Our bass player John Feeney is an expert in the historical issues of the bass, really a champion of whether one is using the right instrument…I have the conversation with him for almost every concert. But in this case I’m quite sure the “violine” he will say is just a four-string bass at 16-foot [one octave below “standard”] pitch.

The concert includes a selection from Beethoven’s oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives, which isn’t performed very often. I admit I didn’t know it at all.

We’re only doing the most familiar last chorus. It’s an hourlong piece, [but] one of Beethoven’s weakest works. Over the years I’ve thought about doing the whole piece, we do a lot of Beethoven, it’s our bailiwick. But I guess I’m among the many musicians who just don’t think it’s a strong enough piece.

The concert is billed as “As the Masters Heard It,” which is also the ACO’s slogan.

We use that billing usually for one concert annually, usually a concert that doesn’t feature a major guest artist, where the focus is on the orchestra.

Given that billing, after you and your musicians have done all that hard work to come as close as you can to a historically accurate sound, do you ever imagine the composers are in the audience at the concert, and wonder how they’d react?

It’s funny you should ask that, Jon, because I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I have never thought of that, dreamed that.

It’s a hot topic, has been ever since the period movement started probably 50 years ago in Europe, as to how one uses rhetoric to describe what we’re doing. Well-known critics have spoken out strongly against using words like “as the masters heard it.” How do we know how this music was played? And it is definitely risky territory to go there.

On the other hand, the period-instrument movement has really blossomed in recent years.

Totally. Worldwide. And the players are better now. Even, in the last three years, a program was added at Juilliard, finally, which really acknowledges the legitimacy of it.

Do you think there’s something in the zeitgeist, something people are searching for?

Yes, authenticity matters to people, and great art is worth that much effort. I met an architect and builder who builds replicas of the Globe Theatre, his full-time passion. It is just a ridiculous amount of work. I don’t think they would do that if we didn’t have the Shakespeare plays. We have these Mozart and Beethoven symphonies, these Bach works that we know people will continue to play forever and want to hear. So once the genie is let out of the bottle that Mozart used a different flute that in fact sounded very different…

Over the years the players have practiced and practiced and it’s become institutionalized. Now you can get a degree in baroque violin playing.

Do you think this enthusiasm is an encouraging sign for classical music in general?

I’ve heard it said many times, and I agree, that the period-instrument movement was one of the two or three most refreshing and lifeblood-giving events in a century to keep classical music alive. It just opened up whole new venues, whole new audiences, and exposure to musical literature that we wouldn’t have had. If you listen to Telemann on a baroque orchestra it just comes alive in a way that was lost for more than 100 years at least. And now people listen to Telemann pieces!

Can you tell me about the ACO’s Classical Music for Kids program?

It was founded 15 years ago in Connecticut with a three-pronged premise, that we would go to schools where there was a music teacher or someone to prepare the children; take our musicians into the school for an assembly program after the children had been prepared; and then the children would be invited with their families to a concert of the same music with the same musicians. It was very successful and it continues today, and now it’s in New York City as well as Connecticut and New Jersey.

It’s a wonderful thing that has reached hundreds of thousands of kids. I do the programs myself – not because I’m moralizing about it, I just really like being around children and seeing the effect that the music has on them. And without question, whether we’re at an Upper East Side school with children who come from well-heeled families with resources and access to private music lessons and a full-time music teacher at the school, or whether it’s at a school in a poor neighborhood where the kids are absolutely clueless and have never been to an opera or concert and maybe never will go, the effect on the children is the same, they have no stereotypes about classical music, they just get into the music.

And for some reason early and baroque music, Bach, and Mozart up through Beethoven, just have such immediacy with children. You see them dancing, smiling, clapping along. They don’t know when it was written. We don’t introduce it as being written 200 years ago and these people are dead! We just say here it is, and their emotional reaction is very encouraging.

Do you focus on the period-instrument aspect?

No. We change the program every year – this year it’s [Mozart’s opera] The Magic Flute, so we take singers in and I accompany them on the piano.

When or how did you get interested in period instruments?

I was always a sort-of purist. I was a double major in composition and organ, so I had church positions and a lot of choral training. As a composer I’m interested in the how and why of the way composers thought and think, and I analyze music from the composer’s point of view. So there’s a kind of faith to the composer born in me. Second, in doing church music I trained boys’ choirs, and it just happened that I knew about the Early Music movement and period playing. [At that time] we were getting those early recordings [of Early Music], back when the CD was first invented, and period instruments sounded fabulous on this new medium.

We were a freelance orchestra of professional players, and I asked around and there were a couple of dozen players in the New York and Boston areas who were doing this work. I took and chance and, for one of the concerts, said let’s hire musicians who play original instruments.

I went to the first rehearsal with the normal preparation I do for any score, writing all my marks and so forth, and I stood up at the first measure and we started the music and I was so moved, so shaken with the sounds, that I stepped off the podium, I was unnerved with how different it all was, and how my issues of blend and texture were all out the window – I didn’t have to worry about this and worry about that, because the tools that they were using were right for that music.

That’s a great story.

That’s really true, it was that innocent. It’s one thing to listen to fabulous recordings from the Academy of Ancient Music from London. It’s another thing to put the players before you. My only perspective before that was the one I had from modern instruments.

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

The American Classical Orchestra Chorus was wonderful at your recent performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass, and it will join the orchestra at the upcoming concert for Mozart’s Coronation Mass and the excerpts from Beethoven’s Christ on the Mount of Olives. Are there different skills or knowledge that you as conductor have to draw on to lead works for orchestra together with chorus and soloists, as opposed to the orchestra alone? It’s a great many people on stage at once.

It’s just exponentially more sound, more people, more forces, more potential for ensemble problems. But it’s all logical. We have a really good thing going right now with the chorus. They’re freelance singers from the city but there’s a real joie de vivre with this group. The phones were ringing off the hook with people wanting to audition. We only sing three or four times a year, but it’s been so successful.

Part of it is just the timing, but the second part is that voices just blend better with the period instruments. It’s less of a fight. You’re not drowning each other out. It’s a texture thing. It’s always been true, singers just don’t have to force. You can really see where this music came from, which is the human voice, right?

The instruments have evolved to create more sound.

Yes. They’re louder. If I go to hear a Verdi Requiem at the Philharmonic for example, with this huge chorus and huge orchestra, there’s still a lot of competition going on because Verdi used gut strings, and these string players are buzzing away on steel strings so you need more and more [volume from the] choir.

But in our case we have me, who happens to have a choral background from my church work, I know about choral conducting. And so I prepare the choir, there isn’t anybody else doing it, so it saves time, makes us all on the same page by the time you combine the two groups. Now it’s got such a head of steam artistically that with next year’s programming I’m going to begin the process of forming a choir-and-orchestra entity like you’ve seen in some European groups, the Monteverdi Choir & Orchestra with John Eliot Gardiner, or the Collegium Vocale Gent. I think we’re going to pursue having a unit like this, and add a couple of concerts in the church next year which will allow them to do more than [what we can do at] the big Alice Tully Hall concerts.

Next year we’ll also do the St. John Passion and a Haydn opera, so we’ll be using the choir!

Maestro Crawford will conduct the American Classical Orchestra and Chorus in “As the Masters Heard It: Music by Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert” at Lincoln Center‘s Alice Tully Hall on March 12.

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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