RICHARD BETTS catches up with period-instrument orchestra NZ Barok ahead of their forthcoming concert of quartets by Mozart and Boccherini.
NZ Barok is the country’s only period-instrument orchestra. Part musical endeavour, part act of artistic scholarship, the group is dedicated to performing in a style and on instruments as close as possible to what the composers had in their heads when they wrote the music.
I spoke with NZ Barok co-founder and co-artistic director Graham McPhail.
Richard Betts – Mozart and Boccherini are composers who came a bit later than the sort of music we usually associate with NZ Barok. Period instruments bring a clarity of line to Baroque music (approx. 1600-1750), but what do period instruments bring to Classical-era (1750 to 1820-ish) string quartets or small groups where you don’t have that blur of instruments fighting for space?
Graham McPhail – It’s the same principle, I think. There’s still this real clarity that you get. The instruments are so articulate, they speak really well and that adds to that sense that chamber music’s a conversation. We feel perfectly fine playing pretty much anything from the 18th century on our instruments. We change our bows, though. We’ll be using Classical bows and that just gives a little bit of a difference, that move towards slightly longer line and a bit more power here and there. So I suppose we have a slightly different approach.
Richard – How does that differ from the modern string quartet that most listeners would be familiar with?
Graham – A modern string quartet is aiming for that total homogenous sound but we are still aiming for four clear, distinct voices. That’s what the instruments really want to do, I think. Of course, we’re trying to get an overall sound as well.
Richard – You mentioned using Classical bows. A Baroque bow is different to a standard bow in that it’s a slightly different shape and it’s much lighter towards the tip. When you say a Classical bow, are you talking about a standard bow or something else?
Graham – No, it’s in between. The bows and instruments just kept transitioning. Violinists and composers wanted different things from the instrument because the aesthetic was changing. The designers and makers came up with new varieties, so we just loosely call it a Classical bow but it’s sort of halfway between the modern bow and Baroque bow. It’s a little bit longer than a Baroque bow, a little bit heavier, the weight distribution is a little bit different, so it can start to do some things the Baroque bow couldn’t do so well. You get a little bit more power out of it, a slightly more even sound. Some people call [Classical bows] transition bows because they’re sort of a transition between one and the other, and the instruments started to do the same thing. Pitch wasn’t standardised either. Strictly speaking, we should probably be playing at a different pitch, a little bit higher. We’ve decided to stay down for this concert, but pitch was historically arbitrary; it was one of the most variable things in Europe. Wherever you travelled, pitch was pretty localized.
Richard – None of the works that you’ve programmed is especially well known. How did you come up with the programme?
Graham – We wanted to do works that we liked, so that we would enjoy presenting them and have our enjoyment clear to the audience. And I think Boccherini is one of the most interesting composers. He is someone that really comes to life on the [period] instruments. You can get away with beautiful Mozart on modern instruments but there’s something about the way Boccherini composed that was intimately related to string instruments. He was a cellist, and I think that he exploits the colours of the instruments in a different way to Mozart or Haydn, and I think it really needs to be original instruments for it to come to life. He’s less well known than Mozart or Haydn and there’s a real Spanish influence in his music.
Richard – Boccherini’s quite dark, isn’t he? He writes a good dark tune. And apart from the String Quintet and the Stabat Mater, you rarely hear him. Do you think he’s unfairly ignored?
Graham – Yeah, I think so. There’s a great quote about God choosing Boccherini when He wants to listen to music. It’s quite a good endorsement.
Richard – Why Mozart quartets instead of Haydn, who’s better known for them?
Graham – I wanted to do an early Mozart quartet [KV.157 in C Major, written in 1772 when Mozart was 16], because they tend to be overdone at weddings and done quite badly, you know what I mean? [Laughs] We wanted to take something that’s actually a real gem and try and to craft it beautifully and give it a bit of a fresh reading. The slow movement of that quartet is absolutely gorgeous. And the Flute Quartet No.1 [KV.285] is excellent music, and we thought having the flute in there, two quartets and the flute, would add a nice variety to the concert.
Richard – Mozart was reputed to have hated the flute. What in KV.285 would persuade people differently?
Graham – They just have to listen to the second movement. It’s extraordinary. It’s this beautiful aria for the flute, and the rest of us are going pluck, pluck, pluck. It’s like a gift. It’s one of the loveliest gems, you’d think he adored the flute. You wouldn’t have a clue he didn’t fancy it. He must have put his personal prejudices aside. It was a commission, so maybe he thought he needed to come up with something decent otherwise he might not get asked again or something.
Richard – The original instrument movement is roughly 60 years old. Where are we now with period performance? Originally, as many people were turned off as turned on. Is it now something that’s fully integrated and we don’t necessarily have to think of it as something separate?
Graham – I think to some degree that’s true; it’s pretty mainstream. Even modern orchestras can play Baroque music nicely now, and when you’ve started influencing modern orchestras, you know something’s crept into the general consciousness. The general awareness among musicians is that it’s standard practice now. At most universities you at least do lectures and stock performance even if you don’t try the instrument. At the same time, there’s almost a new wave of what I call ‘modern Baroque’ performing now, which has become fast and slick and taking the surface features of authentic performance, and making almost a gimmick of it. I think there’s a heck of a lot of that around all of a sudden. I’m a bit sad that a lot of it is going for the showy, slick stuff and I think a lot of that generation are not bothering to read the original sources and have a think for themselves.
Richard – It always surprises me that there are so few period instrument groups in New Zealand, and so few places that we can hear period instruments.
Graham – I think it’s to do with our size. When you think about what we can sustain in terms of opera or big orchestras. We’ve been going for 15 years and we always meet people that have never heard of us and have no idea that we exist. But we try, you know? I mean, we have a small budget for these sorts of things. Luckily, social media is helping and our recordings are played quite often these days on RNZ Concert, which all helps. You can only keep beavering away and doing what you can and what you have energy for. And we’re lucky to have very committed people who want to keep doing it.
Richard – What drew you to historically informed performance?
Graham – I was a student at Otago in the 1980s. My teacher down there said I should listen to this recording. It was [Vivaldi’s] The Four Seasons played by Concentus Musicus. They were one of the first Baroque orchestras in the world. It was so wild and amazing I thought, “Gosh. I didn’t realize you were allowed to do that sort of thing”. It was quite a wild interpretation at the time, lots of playing around with the tempo and holding notes and speeding, lots of what we call rhetoric now. It was quite different from the overly romantic singing style that we were used to at that time. I thought, “That’s pretty cool”. It seemed quite wicked, so I wanted to find out more and it was downhill from there. [Laughs] Finding out how damn difficult these early instruments are to play.
Richard – And keep in tune… You trained in Holland. Did every New Zealand period instrument musician train in Holland? It seems like it.
Graham – There’s a strong connection with Kiwis in Holland. [Former Chamber Music New Zealand and NZSO CEO] Peter Walls was my teacher and he said, ‘You have to go to Sigiswald Kuijken’ – who’s Belgian but based in Holland. A lot of us went. The section leaders of NZ Barok all studied in Holland. It’s an easy place to study, less expensive than the States.
Richard – It’s interesting that you mentioned Sigiswald Kuijken. I have a recording of him conducting Haydn’s 26th symphony, and it sounds remarkably like the third movement of Mozart’s K.157 quartet. I didn’t think that K.157 was all that Haydn-y until it hit that third movement.
Graham – Yeah, it is very like Haydn, a zippy rondo.
Richard – The concert is at Corbans Estate Arts Centre. Is the acoustic good?
Graham – Yeah, that’s why we decided to do it. It’s gorgeous. It’s not too big, not too small and the wood everywhere makes it delicious. We love something that’s quite lively, and wood rather than glass. A warm, woody sound and feel. And the little church is gorgeous like that, it’s perfect I think, for chamber music. It holds about 50 people. The idea was that you might stroll in on a Sunday afternoon, spend an hour listening, then stroll on out again. We want to make it informal, and let the audience in on the workings of a concert rather than us just sitting up there playing away. We’ll talk about the instruments and the music and the way we approach the music; we might even break up the movements and talk between them. I think audiences like to get a bit of insight into the movement that’s about to happen; when you tell them all about it at the beginning of a three-movement or four-movement work it’s quite hard to remember. We might be naughty and break them up. See how we go.
* NZ Barok perform at Corbans Estate Arts Centre on 9 August. Tickets available through iticket.
NZ Barok on YouTube.