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Boston Baroque: What’s Old Is New

CFA’s Pearlman conducts Mozart program


An embattled President Richard Nixon was clinging to his second term and American Graffiti dominated movie marquees when young harpsichordist and composer Martin Pearlman gathered a small group of Boston musicians to perform baroque music on the early instruments they were written for. While many such groups are thriving today, in 1973 Pearlman was a visionary—the Boston Baroque was the first orchestra of its kind in North America. Nearly four decades and three Grammy nominations later, the prolific conductor and College of Fine Arts professor of music and historical performance is still at the podium, embracing 17th- and 18th-century music with undiminished passion.

The orchestra, its population of instruments and voices waxing and waning according to the demands of the original musical scores, was a hit from the start, and continues to imprint its own signature on enduring crowd pleasers like Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons or Handel’s Messiah. Just don’t refer to Boston Baroque as antiquarian, fusty, nostalgic—or anything, in fact, but modern.

“It’s a very modern idea,” says Pearlman, a soft-spoken man with a bushy mane, whose flattened vowels betray his Chicago roots. “To have things leaner, meaner, and more transparent is a very modern aesthetic.” Pearlman, who conducted Boston Baroque in a Mozart program March 2 and 3 at the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, compares the achievements of his small orchestra and vocalists to cleaning a very old painting: “Even though you like the patina, you get to see what it originally was like.”

Martin Pearlman, Boston Baroque, Boston University College of Fine Arts

He conducted husband and wife Robert Levin and Ya-Fei Chuang in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s spirited Concerto for Two Pianos, Symphony No. 29 in A, and Symphony No. 36, known as the Linz Symphony. “The story goes, Mozart was visiting Linz when he was unexpectedly asked to do a concert,” Pearlman says, “and he told his father, ‘I don’t have a single symphony with me.’” So he wrote one—in six days.

At concerts, Pearlman, who teaches performance practice and coaches a small baroque orchestra at BU, occasionally pauses to share such stories with the audience. But the music affords an education in and of itself; Boston Baroque has covered a sweeping range of the repertoire, from Luigi Cherubini to Ludwig von Beethoven, from the operas of Christoph Willibald Gluck to Mozart. The group, which has toured the United States and Europe, has more than 20 recordings on the Telarc label, including Handel’s Messiah, J. S. Bach’s B Minor Mass and the Brandenburg Concertos, Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor, and Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. The cusp of the group’s 40th anniversary finds it resettled in swank offices at the WGBH building near the Mass Pike in Brighton, about to get a new executive director, and entering a new recording contract with Glasgow-based Linn Records. A recording of Haydn’s ethereal Creation is due out in June.

As New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini (CFA’82) wrote years ago in the Boston Globe, “If fans of Boston Baroque wonder why Pearlman’s conducting is so insightful, it’s because he knows, as only a composer can, how music goes.” And in 1998, Stereo Review weighed in on the orchestra’s Grammy-nominated recording of the Monteverdi Vespers: “You begin to understand why Boston Baroque is perhaps the outstanding period-instrument ensemble in this country.” And from the New York Times: “Boston Baroque’s playing combines supreme technical precision with unexpected psychological depth.”

Martin Pearlman, Boston Baroque, Boston University College of Fine Arts

Lean, clean, transparent—and modern

The son of an abstract expressionist painter and a gifted pianist mother who forfeited a music career to raise her children, Pearlman earned an undergraduate degree at Cornell and a graduate degree at Yale. “When I was very little I remember my mother playing a lot of Beethoven and Chopin,” says Pearlman. “She had a real talent.”

The seed for Boston Baroque was planted in Amsterdam, where Pearlman studied harpsichord with early music pioneer Gustav Leonhardt on a Fulbright grant. Pearlman came to Boston not only because he loved the city, but because it was the nation’s center of harpsichord building, with master craftsmen such as William Dowd and Frank Hubbard. The orchestra originally had eight members, who “were still learning to play the instruments, but the critics were very supportive,” says Pearlman. He still conducts some original members along with more recent recruits like concert master Christina Day Martinson (CFA’05), who started on baroque violin as a graduate student with Pearlman at BU. “Gradually we got more violins, more oboe players, some trumpet players, and then I started working with singers and added a chorus to expand the repertoire,” he says. The professional chorus, which usually numbers 21 voices, is now part of Boston Baroque.

At a rehearsal before the concert under the elaborately carved and stenciled rib vaults of the First Baptist Church in Newton Centre, Pearlman dipped and swayed in the sepia light as Ya-Fei and Levin engaged in the musical conversation of the Mozart piano duet. They played fortepianos —the 17th- and 18th-century precursor to the modern piano—and around them the orchestra drew the lush but shortened tones characteristic of period instruments. The sound is rich, stirring, and contained, all at once.

Boston Baroque, Martin Pearlman

As concert master Martinson puts it, Pearlman “draws out what is most natural from the musicians. He never imposes arbitrary ideas on the music and always searches for the most intuitive forms of expression.”

Designed to play in churches, palaces, and concert halls predating today’s sprawling performance spaces, at first glance many of the orchestral instruments don’t look any different from familiar ones. It’s easy to spot a wood-crafted flute or an oboe with no keys. But after a while one notices that the violins have no chin rests and their bows are shorter and strung looser. The cellos lack supporting spikes and one style of period upright bass has frets, like a guitar. All period string instruments are strung with sheep gut, not steel. “The instruments are originals, or copies as close as possible to the original,” Pearlman says.

Boston Baroque was born in a Harvard Square church and moved around the Boston area before 1980, when it found a permanent home at Jordan Hall, “in some ways the greatest midsized hall in this country,” says Pearlman. “It puts an aura around our sound but it’s very clear; there’s no echo like in a big church.”

In addition to his conducting and teaching, Pearlman has established himself as an innovative and sought-after composer. He has been composing music since the age of six. At Cornell, where he majored in composition, he studied with Karel Husa and Robert Palmer. His mentor at Yale, where he earned a master’s degree in composition, was Yehudi Wyner, winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in music for his piano concerto Chiavi in Mano. Now at work scoring James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake for narrator, flute, clarinet, percussion, piano, violin, viola, and double bass, Pearlman earned wide praise for his music for three Samuel Beckett plays at the author’s centennial at New York’s 92nd Street Y in 1996. “Pearlman’s evocative music seemed so right for these unsettling plays, it’s now hard for me to imagine them without it,” wrote Lloyd Schwartz in the Boston Phoenix.

But for Pearlman, who has also made forays into electronic music, the contemporary strains inspired by Beckett and Joyce are of a piece with Boston Baroque incarnations of Monteverdi and Bach scores written centuries ago: lean, clean, transparent—and modern.

Boston Baroque’s Mozart and the Levins will be performed Friday, March 2, and
 Saturday, March 3, at 8 p.m. 
at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, 290 Huntington Ave., Boston. Tickets are $28 to $56 and can be purchased here. By MBTA, take the Green Line E trolley to the Symphony stop.

Devin Hahn can be reached at dhahn@bu.edu.


One Comment on Boston Baroque: What’s Old Is New

  • Mary Reiten on 03.01.2012 at 8:45 pm

    Lovely! Well done BU!

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