Where else but in Boston can nerdy and hip combine so stylishly? Classical geek chic finds a certain epitome in the offerings of the area’s many period performance groups, who blend research and historical analysis with the wit and daring of playing. Grand Harmonie, a group that does classical era rep on instruments of appropriate design, is the latest addition to the scene. So far Grand Harmonie has appeared as a wind band and as chamber players, but next weekend the group is launching its most ambitious project yet: a pair of orchestral concerts in Boston, on March 10th at 3 pm at Brookline’s United Parish, and in New York City, on March 9th at 7 pm as part of the Salon Sanctuary Series at the Abigail Adams Smith Auditorium on East 61st St. Conducted by Andrew Altenbach and featuring core GH wind players as soloists, the program will feature Weber’s Overture to Der Freischütz, Schubert’s beloved “Unfinished” Symphony, Mozart’s Divertimento K.131, and a reconstruction of Mozart’s Symphonie Concertante by local musicological detective Robert Levin.
So why does Mozart need to be reassembled? I spoke with Grand Harmonie co-founder and natural horn player Yoni Kahn and solicited some wisdom from artistic advisor Levin:
Zoe Kemmerling: The timbres of classical instruments are so different from their modern counterparts—is it hard to adjust? To find the ideal blend?
Yoni Kahn: What’s nice about the Symphonie Concertante solo group is that it’s four-fifths of a wind quintet, and in that period there was a lot of wind quintet literature. Reicha, who taught at the Paris Conservatory in the 1820s, was everybody’s composition teacher—Berlioz, Liszt, and others. He was convinced that the wind quintet would be the next string quartet, so he had everybody writing wind quintets. Since then, the wind quintet has been a serious genre, and wind quintets have seriously thought about the advantages and difficulties of blend.
With period instruments, the physical limitations are stricter, so that a lot of things become really virtuosic. You can immediately tell what’s idiomatic for the instrument and what’s not. That’s something that Levin put a lot of thought into as well—analyzing, bar by bar, the changes that the arranger of the surviving version, sometime in the mid-19th-century, made in the work to accommodate the 19th-century players for which it was transcribed, which included a virtuoso clarinetist and other players who were sort of mediocre. Working backwards and using evidence from Mozart’s letters, Levin has attempted to reverse these sometimes clumsy changes, bringing the lines back to their original, idiomatic state for the instruments involved. In his pre-concert lecture, we’ll compare musical examples of the different versions.
ZK: Tell me more about how this piece that’s creating such a buzz. One doesn’t often hear the word “new” or “premiere” associated with Mozart. What’s special about it?
YK: Strings and keyboards are often at the forefront of period performance groups. So it’s cool that the Symphonie Concertante features four solo winds. The version of this piece that survived is not the same one that Mozart himself wrote. The surviving one is for clarinet, oboe, horn, and bassoon, but in letters Mozart references the flute, and this is the version that Levin has reconstructed, removing clarinet and adding flute.
Robert Levin: We know for whom Mozart wrote his Concertante, because he names the instruments and players in a letter to his father: Johann Baptist Wendling, flute; Friedrich Ramm, oboe; Georg Wenzel Ritter, bassoon, and Giovanni Punto (Jan Vaclav Stich), horn.
ZK: What’s the evidence that the surviving version is not the same as Mozart’s original? And what sort of compositional analysis is involved in engineering the piece’s reversal?
RL: The lines of the surviving version are truncated, showing that the original called for a higher or lower range than was available in the transcribed version, or to the players of the revised version. The flute is the soprano instrument in the original; the oboe is the soprano instrument in the surviving version. Thus the oboe of the original is analogous to the clarinet in the transcription, except that the clarinet has a wider range, and evidence shows that the clarinet was featured in the transcription to a degree that no instrument was highlighted in the original.
ZK: So ok, the timbres of classical instruments are special. But they’re also way more difficult to master. So why do it on these instruments that make everything harder?
YK: Period instruments aren’t necessarily harder, they’re just different. On the horn, for example, you may lose accuracy but you gain flexibility of tone and pitch. That being said, using classical instruments brings across the fact that this was really flamboyant writing for the time, running up against the very limits of instrumental technique, especially with regard to range. Playing on modern instruments, everything sounds a little too comfortable.
ZK: But is it frustrating? Like trying to run a marathon if you’re an asthmatic?
YK: Mozart is satisfying. He writes in a way that you instinctively know is playable, but it pushes your technique. This perhaps applies most to the Mozart divertimento we’re doing—there’s some writing for horn quartet that’s extremely chromatic, and no one does this again in orchestral writing for almost 50 years—in fact, until the Weber overture we’re playing on the same concert. But here we have a piece by a 16-year-old Mozart that contains equally virtuosic horn quartet writing. With modern instruments, the pleasures of color and voice leading are flattened out and it becomes just a string of notes. But on natural horns it comes alive.
ZK: For the uninitiated, can you explain the difference between the natural and valved (modern) horn?
YK: Natural horns are just a length of brass tubing and a mouthpiece, so you’re limited by the notes of the harmonic series unless you manipulate your hand in the bell to fill in the missing notes—but they all come out with slightly different sounds and different degrees of loudness. With the valved horn, you press down valves to change the length of the horn, thus changing the notes the harmonic series is based on. The only way to do that with a natural horn is to take out one piece of tubing and put in another. Part of idiomatic horn writing is knowing which of those stopped notes is easiest to approach, which you can put together to form a moving line.
ZK: And tell me about the flute…
YK: Andrea’s using a classical 8-keyed flute. It’s the same idea as the horn: some notes are easier to play than others. Notes outside of the home key can be played with either a key or with elaborate cross-fingerings, and can have different tone colors. Part of the skill that goes into writing for wind instruments is knowing what the different notes sound like, and what different combinations of the odd-sounding notes will sound like. Mozart emphasizes modulations through timbre as well as harmony. In the Concertante, it modulates into a minor section in which you hear the “surprise” chords in a very different way. (Grand Harmonie’s website includes an “instrumentarium.”
ZK: Who are the soloists that will bring Mozart’s true intentions to life?
YK: Andrea Leblanc [flute] is a regular with Handel & Haydn, and has been studying early flute since she was an undergrad at NEC. Kristin Olson [oboe] has a very eclectic music career—in addition to being an oboist she also plays baritone sax, and spent several years playing in an orchestra in Mexico, until she decided to drop everything and start the historical performance program in oboe at Juilliard in 2010. Elizabeth Hardy [bassoon] plays variants of the bassoon in everything from Renaissance bands to grand opera. (She’s also the general manager of Helios, recently featured in BMInt here.) And I’m doing a physics PhD at MIT, and I started natural horn about two years ago after growing up playing modern horn.
ZK: How’d y’all come together? (Not just the soloists, but the group of period wind players that are the core of Grand Harmonie)
YK: Basically what brought us together was the Aston Magna workshop at Brandeis last summer. For the first time, they had enough wind players to do Mozart’s Gran Partita, which is this totally over-the-top piece for 13 winds. It was so much fun, and that was the first time that many of us had really done classical wind playing.
ZK: So far you’ve done chamber-music size wind works. Ready to tackle an entire orchestra?
YK: I don’t know what it feels like to be a soloist in front of an orchestra—yet. We wind players live a very different life from string players. We love playing chamber music, but for wind players raised on modern instruments, orchestra music is basically it. It’s exciting to have the chance to combine both—wind chamber music with an orchestra. Normally, the life of a horn player is playing five-one a lot.
ZK: You’re talking this concert on the road. Where are you going?
YK: For our whole season, we’ve been doing one concert in Boston and one concert in New York. A lot of our players have gone through Juilliard’s new HP program and are based in New York. The period instrument scene over there isn’t quite as wide and varied as it is in Boston—Boston has dozens of period instrument groups! So it’s great to have the Juilliard people performing in their native habitat, but also bring something new to the community there.
ZK: Anything else up your sleeves?
YK: We have a series of smaller concerts, “Grand Harmonie in the Community,” which take advantage of the many chamber-music sized permutations we can put together from our core groups of players. We did one in December at the Wellesley-Weston Lifetime Learning Seminar, and one earlier this month in Waltham as part of Daniels Music Schools’ “Thirds Sundays at 3” series. This Friday, March 2nd, we will be performing in a joint fundraiser with Partners in Health, a group dedicated to health as a human right worldwide [link here]. The idea is that Boston has a really extensive nonprofit community, and it’s great when the different branches of it help each other out.
ZK: There’s just one more thing I’m dying to know. What’s your nerdiest early music joke?
YK: Oh man, I don’t think I’ve been in the business long enough to have one. But Kristen has a “memes 415” page on facebook. One of her favorites goes “I wanted a boyfriend, not a hotboy.” (The archaic French spelling of “oboe” appears alternately as “hautbois,” “hautboys,” and “hoboy”…though not pronounced the same…)
ZK: Hahahaha! So, um, maybe you have to be a young early music enthusiast to laugh at this joke…BUT all you have to have to enjoy Grand Harmonie’s concert next weekend is a love of sound, color, elegance, and energy! More information and tickets can be found here.