Bach to the Future 

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Dry. Formal. Even—ahem—boring. For some, such words might come to mind when thinking of baroque music, the 18th-century style of Bach, Handel, Vivaldi and others. But not for Andrew Manze.

Associate Director of the Academy of Ancient Music, Manze (pronounced “man-zee”) and his ensemble are on tour this spring to demonstrate that, in the right hands, this music is very much alive. Here’s “ancient” for you, he seems to say. Just try to let your attention wander.

The original Academy of Ancient Music was founded in 1726 to play “oldies” (music more than 10 years old). Before that time, classical works didn’t remain in the repertoire for more than a generation.

In 1973, Christopher Hogwood revived the organization in London to fulfill the same function. The collection of musicians would play music of the era using instruments from the same period. The lute, harpsichord and especially the violin—which, as luck would have it, reached its current evolution during the “ancient” period.

“The old instruments, I think, just sound best,” says Manze. “It’s the difference between a vintage car and a new one. Maybe it doesn’t go as fast, but it’s more charming.” The strings, for example, being made of gut and not metal, don’t have a tinny, bright sound. He likens them to vocal chords. “They are more muted. They can sing, speak, whisper or shout.”

Manze says he went for baroque for a simple reason: “Because it’s really good music. A lot of people don’t like modern classical music—it’s too atonal or challenging. Whereas baroque music is entertaining and easy to listen to.”

One piece in the academy’s repertoire, “Ariadne’s Lament,” about a woman deserted by her lover, musically dramatizes that theme. “This music is simple,” Manze explains. “The songs are like simple paintings, like early movies, very clear. Some of it is serious, some very light, some very moving. There is a whole range of expression.”

As associate director, Manze plays the dual roles of lead violinist and concert master. “We are playing things like Vivaldi, and that’s how he would direct it. There isn’t a conductor because this music comes from before the invention of the conductor. We play off of each other, the 16 of us, like a very large string quartet.” The only thing academic about it is the rigor with which they tackle the music.

The program is made up largely of Handel and Vivaldi, with a few others thrown in. They’d played Bach for a long time and needed a break. “Handel is what the original Academy would have played,” he continues. “He lived in London and knew them. They played music by one of Bach’s sons who lived in London, but Johann wasn’t well known until long after.”

In addition to music indigenous to the period, the group also performs works by contemporary composers in the style, like John Tavener. The ensemble’s numerous recordings include Handel’s opera Rinaldo with soprano Cecelia Bartoli.

This isn’t music by numbers, however—or even, for that matter, by notes. “As originally played, the musicians used to improvise a lot, and invent new melodies, like bebop musicians,” he explains. “We try to be very daring. I make each concert different, for both the audience and the performers. Although this is old music, when you play it in concert it sounds fresh, as though it was written yesterday. There’s a visual aspect to this music, and people enjoy seeing the musicians work hard making it.”

He has found that audiences react positively and in character. In England, people listen attentively and then applaud politely at the end. But in the States, he observes, people really respond wholeheartedly: “During a piece by Geminiani, someone in the audience shouted ‘Yeah!’ in the middle, as if one of us had played a great jazz solo.”

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