WLIW Arts Beat


American Classical Orchestra

While classical music compositions have been preserved for our listening pleasure, it’s rare to hear pieces played as they would have been a century or two ago. That’s because instruments have evolved quite a bit in that time. But New York’s American Classical Orchestra is putting a bit of the past in its performances with antique instruments and techniques.

AIRED: June 11, 2018 | 0:05:18

>> Breathe. Four.

>> ♪ This soul, silent soul

>> When Brahms wrote this

rhapsody, in 1839, he wrote it

for the instruments of the

time -- wooden flutes,

gut-string violins,

and valveless French horns.

And at a concert by the

American Classical Orchestra,

based out of New York City,

those are the instruments

on which the audiences of today

will hear the piece performed.

Musical director Tom Crawford

founded the organization

over 30 years ago.

The group focuses on music

from around the 1770s

to the 1830s,

the post-Baroque

Classical period.

Think Beethoven and Mozart.

The American Classical Orchestra

is one of several music groups

like it that fall

into the historically informed

performance movement,

dedicated to presenting

period music

as it was originally intended

to be played centuries ago.

>> A while back -- I mean,

a good 50 years ago or more --

especially in Europe,

people realized that,

"Well, wait a minute,

if the flute was made

of wood, you know,

if the oboe had fewer keys,

if it was a different instrument

with the same name, you know,

back when Mozart was writing,

what are those differences,

and how would they work

if we put them together?"

>> Crawford says when

the movement first took off,

curious musicians

who couldn't get their hands

on original instruments

turned to instrument makers

who created exact copies

of classical instruments

being housed in museums.

That meant musical groups

like Crawford's were able

to get their first taste

of authentic classical music.

>> At least speaking for myself,

and I know many other musicians,

we were just astonished

at the texture.

The texture changed profoundly.

>> [ Singing indistinctly ]

>> [ Singing indistinctly ]

>> This is a huge thing

for a musician,

because the natural blend

of period instruments

is, for me and many others,

the greatest asset of all.

>> That blend on classical


to which Crawford refers

can be challenging

to get on modern instruments,

which are created to be louder

and brighter-sounding.

As they evolved over the last

few centuries,

string instruments

were reinforced inside

to allow musicians to play

louder in large concert halls.

Wooden flutes gave way

to metal ones

partially for the same purpose.

When Crawford

started his orchestra,

musicians were increasingly

interested in the precursors

to their instruments,

but many did not know

how to play them.

[ Soft classical music plays ]

Principal oboist Marc Schachman

picked up the baroque oboe

for another ensemble

in the early 1970s,

after graduating from Juilliard.

>> It felt, like, absolutely


We all thought,

"How the hell are we going to

ever be able to do this?"

>> It was a challenge.

The modern oboe

has about 20 keys.

The baroque oboe has three.

At this rehearsal, Schachman

is playing on his classical one.

It's more evolved than his

baroque oboe

but still quite different

than a modern version

of the instrument.

>> In Mozart's time, you can see

that a few keys were added --

not a lot but a few.

The biggest changes

were actually internal

in the question of the bore,

and so this became

a narrower bore.

Some keys were added, and so it

becomes more appropriate

for Mozart or Beethoven,

where he likes

the higher register of the oboe,

as opposed to the lower register

of the oboe.

>> Schachman says

it took years for him

to master his period oboes,

but now he plays them better

than a modern one.

In fact, he decided to sell

his modern oboe altogether.

[ Soft classical music plays ]

R.J. Kelley is similarly

enchanted with his 19th-century

corps d'orchestre,

a precursor to the French horn,

made in Paris

and bought on eBay.

He prefers to play pieces of the

period on this instrument

because he feels

there's nuance in the music

that's lost on a modern one.

>> When you see

a modern French horn,

you'll see their hand

in the bell.

It doesn't really do much now,

but it's a legacy of the

technique for this instrument,

because for every one of those

open notes, if I close my hand

a bit, I get a second note

with a slightly different sound.

[ Horn plays ]

When you know

what the composer's intent is,

when you look at a note,

and you know if it's open

or closed, it changes the color,

changes the dynamic content,

may alter the articulation.

And so all of these things

inform your interpretation.

And I like to think

that it gives us a better idea

of what the composer

had in mind.

Whether that's the direction

you want to go in or not

is a separate issue altogether.

>> According to founder

Crawford, an increasing number

of musicians and music lovers

do want to go in that direction.

He thinks the interest

in period music

played on period instruments

comes from a belief in the

literature, the music as

written, and a realization

that the experience is engaging

for audiences and musicians


>> The depth of the players

and the period-instrument

movement is now permanent,

and it's wonderful.

>> To learn more about

American Classical Orchestra,

visit the link on our website.


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