The post title says musical gut check – and by that I mean gut strings! Sunday evening, I made my debut on a period instrument! I kind of cheated a little. I used a chin rest and my own modern bow. But the strings were gut, the ‘A’ was pitched at 430 Hz, and my two partners in crime were both seasoned period performance pros. It was an interesting experience (and ultimately, a very enjoyable one), and I thought it might be of interest to my readers to know what this adjustment was like for me.
What: A performance of Classical string trios on period instruments.
Where: The workshop of Darrell Hanks, bowmaker, Pearl District, Portland, OR.
When: Sunday, October 9th, at 7:30pm
First of all, the pitch issue. In modern performance, the A that ensembles tune to [the A between C4 and C5, also known as a’] is between 440 and 442 Hz (vibrations per second), most European orchestras tune to A442, while most German orchestras are now at A443. Early music performers most often tune to A415, which is a half-step flat to modern pitch. Between the Baroque period and the present day, pitch has gradually crept upward – markedly so when instrumental music became something other than an accompanimental genre [for a fascinating read – including the fact that concert pitch in the 18th century actually rose to a minor third HIGHER than current concert pitch – see this Wikipedia article]. The accepted convention now is that Classical period music is often performed at A430, just about half way between Baroque and modern pitch.
So, how does that affect perception of intonation? It plays severe havoc with it (at least in my case)! When I hear the open strings on the period viola, tuned to 430, it feels incredibly out of tune because everything is a quarter-tone flat. The instrument doesn’t ring that way my ear expects it to, after 39 years of playing at 440. Plus, gut strings don’t stay on pitch with any degree of reliability like modern steel and synthetic core strings do. If one has time to devote to just playing at one pitch level for a period of time, the ear can settle into the new normal. However, my preparation period for this concert didn’t allow that. At all.
Musical ping pong.
The week of the concert was the rehearsal period for the Oregon Symphony’s second classical series concerts. So I was ping-ponging between 430 and 440, not to mention two dissimilar violas, all week, every day. The day of the concert, we had an OSO matinee at 2pm, sandwiched by a dress rehearsal for the trio concert at Noon, and followed by the trio concert at 7pm – with a sound check in the space at 6pm. Not how I would have planned it if everyone had free schedules – but when does that ever happen?
So, with all of that tuning nonsense aside, it was really a fun experience. First of all, cellist Shirley Hunt, whose idea this was, and violinist Adam Lamotte are both exceptional musicians, and we all get along with each other – both musically and personally – very well. Sometimes that’s more than half the battle! Secondly, the repertoire was hard to top.
Schubert’s junk mail?
We began the evening with the single movement String Trio in B-flat major, D. 471, which is pure tuneful Schubert at his best. Shirley dug up the factoid that Schubert was at this time sharing an apartment with a man named Franz Schober, which begs some sort of zany sitcom, doesn’t it? I’d bet they were each getting junk mail meant for the other, too.
The next piece on our Viennese Classical survey was Mozart’s E-flat major Divertimento, K. 563. Divertimenti were most often occasional pieces, written to be performed for courtly functions, and not necessarily for the formal concerts to which we are largely used to today. Mozart may have been joking with is title, as this piece is one of the largest and most technically demanding trios in the repertoire. We played the opening Allegro movement and the Andante variations movement. Such great music!
Beethoven in training
Finally, we played our one complete work for the evening, Beethoven’s Op. 9, no. 1 in G major. Beethoven was very much learning the ropes of string chamber music through the composition of his five string trios. Everything that one loves in the extraordinary fifteen string quartets to come is already there in the compositional DNA of these trios. In particular, the gorgeous E major Adagio and concluding D major Presto foreshadow some great moments in his later output.
A thanks to Hanks, et al
A special thanks must go out to Darrell Hanks for his making his bowmaking studio available for concerts such as this! There will be several more throughout the coming concert season, and I’ll try to make sure to publicize them on the blog’s performance calendar as I find out about them. This would also include thanks to our wonderful audience of 20 chamber music fanatics, who gave us such undivided attention (even with the groaning table of wine and cheese close by!) and peppered us with some really intelligent questions afterward. Also, a huge thanks to Adam Lamotte for the use of his wonderful Testore model period viola. I hope I didn’t beat it up too much with my modern bow! And finally, much love and thanks to Shirley Hunt, who thought up this whole crazy idea, and brought her wonderful playing and smiling face (and fervent love of La Croix water) back to her hometown of Portland, all the way from Boston!
Correction: Franz Schober’s name was originally spelled ending with a ‘t’. It does not.