By Michael Feldman
What you will hear on February 10th is some of the most glorious music ever written, but also the emergence of a new orchestra—The Orchestra of St. Veronica.
It is not really a completely new orchestra because it joins some of the best musicians in this City who have played together many times. However, now they will form THE Orchestra of St. Veronica and, in playing together, will become a single instrument with a unique tone and pacing.
Charles Kiger, who organizes the Orchestra and is also our timpanist, has taken the obvious but unusual approach of mixing the finest younger players with veteran leadership from among the best New York independent artists. He has chosen as leaders those players who held principal chairs in the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra—two groups that have been the most artistically satisfying traditional ensembles in our City over the last 40-plus years.
Why is this unusual? Because new groups tend to form among friends from school. The wonderful New York Baroque Incorporated, which performed our Christmas concert on December 23rd, is an outstanding example of this approach. It was formed from among recent graduates of the Julliard Baroque program. Both St. Luke’s and Orpheus (way back in the 1970s) began similarly.
There is no doubt that technical standards have risen over the years; the Juilliard program and the groups they have spawned have taken advantage of this. The terrific Brazilian violinist Edson Scheid, who performed the Vivaldi concerto for muted violin for us, recently recorded the Paganini caprices on gut strings—a feat of prodigious technical acumen, unheard of among freelance artists of the recent past.
What is the advantage of mixing in senior people, indeed, placing them in leadership positions? Acquiring their deeper knowledge of the subtleties of ensemble and style and a connection to the best traditions of the past. For most of them, it also fosters an appreciation of the newer period movement, which enhances and adds to their experience with the finest traditional interpretations.
For those unfamiliar with the differences between these two approaches, here is a short history: In the early-to-mid 1970s, a group of important artists came to the conclusion that, especially for baroque music, a more authentic approach could be achieved by performing on the very instruments (or replicas thereof) that Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi used.
For the strings, it meant incorporating a new bow, realigning the fingerboard, and returning to gut strings—a moderate adjustment. For the winds, especially oboes, horns, and trumpets, it meant virtually learning a new instrument—an enormous undertaking. In truth, the playing was not always completely successful in the beginning. But superb artists like Gustav Leonhardt in Amsterdam and Nikolaus Harnoncourt in Vienna were given huge recording contracts and conductors like John Eliot Gardiner brow-beat players into higher and higher standards. Roger Norrington took the movement to Beethoven, even Berlioz. Boston became an early music mecca and music schools began to recognize the importance of offering programs in such performance.
What was the effect of this movement on the music industry as a whole? Chamber orchestras were marginalized and many either disappeared or became irrelevant. If audiences would only accept authentic performances, especially on recordings, why bother existing if Bach, Handel, Haydn, and Mozart are no longer appropriately within their purview? Many recall a time in which it seemed that every other performance on WQXR was credited to the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, conducted by Neville Marriner. Not any more.
A small but noticeable adjustment is underway. Traditional groups performing on modern instruments are reclaiming portions of the repertoire. They are integrating aspects of what the period movement has taught us while also remembering the approach of remarkable, earlier artists and the centers of music-making that they influenced. Pablo Casals, Bruno Walter, the Marlboro Music Festival, Alexander (Sasha) Schneider (a village standby), and Felix Galimir come to mind, as does Schneider’s Holiday String Seminar in Carnegie Hall. (That seminar is now ably directed by his protege, Jaime Laredo.)
I remember (as will others of my generation) being mesmerized by Sasha Schneider’s New School concerts, especially the Haydn symphonies. What wonderful, spirited, and fervent playing! In a sense, the Haydn piece that concluded our opening concert was a tribute to that amazing artist. I hope Sasha deemed it worthy.
Our senior generation was trained in the Viennese prewar tradition by those artists. Combine that with the sensibilities of the period movement and the best of the younger players, as well as expert personnel decisions, and you have the basis for a splendid new orchestra within a remarkable new space.
I hope you enjoy the February 10th concert as much as we do in giving it, and The Orchestra of St. Veronica, life.