This month, Historical Performance will pair up again with Yale Schola Cantorum and Masaaki Suzuki for what has become a fascinating and fruitful bond between two of the world’s leading student historical performance ensembles.
Having worked under Suzuki several times over the past year, I can report that he has a way of integrating the two ensembles that never fails—it’s as though we’ve been rehearsing and playing together for years. We’re especially fortunate to have him, as he is one of the leading experts in the performance of Bach’s choral music; he’s released volumes of recordings to great acclaim with Bach Collegium Japan which he founded and directs. With such direction, the combined ensembles are really at the cutting edge of historical-performance practices. These musical experiences inform our playing in so many ways, as most of the work we will perform throughout our careers will involve instrumental-vocal collaboration, given the output of 17th- and 18th-century composers.
Performing with Yale Schola Cantorum is a dream come true for an orchestral musician—it’s an elite choir whose members have a great command of their parts. As instrumentalists, we often get stuck in our own world, but these concert series bring us back down to what it is all about, and what pretty much every treatise about instrumental playing for the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries focused on: a singing style.
Bach provided us with a few clues as to what we might be thinking about in listening to this music. The Mass in A Major, BWV 234, and the Mass in G Minor, BWV 235, are rather self-explanatory and have text to aid the audience along in the meaning of the piece, the gist of which is to think and become a little more like Jesus. For the Sinfonia from BWV 42 in D Major and the “Brandenburg” Concerto No. 3 in G Major Bach only provides key signatures, but luckily we have key characteristics from the era, which the composers of this period often used to give their instrumental music meaning without text. For example Johann Mattheson (1681-1764) a contemporary of Bach, described G major to be “persuasive, serious, and cheerful,” its relative key E minor as “pensive and grieved”; D major as “noisy and joyful,” and its relative key B minor “bizarre and morose.”
These works are interesting not just for Bach’s historical values and sublime musical ingenuity, but also for their ability to still speak to us almost 300 years after their composition. If we present them correctly, they could change our outlook on life, or, as many 17th- and 18th-century theorists put it, our humours.