This was supposed to be my first review for “Woman Around Town.” I was beyond excited at the prospect of attending American Classical Orchestra’s concert at Alice Tully Hall on Thursday, March 12. There is also that part of me that wants to maintain normalcy as much as possible during these challenging times. It is the part that believes in the saying “the show must go on.” But then I panicked. News, e-mails, concern for my elderly parents whom I visit often—considerations of many aspects of my life stopped me.
Still, it was a difficult decision to skip this concert, and I wanted to learn more about what I would be missing. In the process, I discovered an extraordinary orchestra, and I thought that, in place of a review, I would take this opportunity to tell you about them. They do have videos on their website and a YouTube channel with excerpts of performances and interviews. If we are compelled or forced to stay home more than ever these days, exploring the artistic and historical gifts that they offer is a rich, beautiful, and even therapeutic way to pass the time.
Founded as the Orchestra of the Old Fairfield Academy in 1984, the American Classical Orchestra (ACO) was permanently established in New York City under its current name in 2005. Its founder and artistic director, Thomas Crawford, has led it to renown and critical acclaim as New York City’s top period instrument orchestra. From annual concerts at Lincoln Center and other venues to educational programs, ACO has been immensely successful in its mission to transport audiences back to the sound of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth century master composers.
“During the seventeenth century… the goal of an instrument was, at its best, to be able to rise to the level of the human voice.” Crawford’s words returned to my mind over and over again as I listened to excerpts played by ACO on their YouTube channel, some from rehearsals with the virtuoso soloists featured on Thursday’s program: Horacio Franco on recorder in an excerpt from Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 and Aisslinn Nosky on violin.
Listening to ACO is indeed a time-travel experience with an abundance of instrumental virtuosity that to me, in many instances, evokes singing. This should come as no surprise, as instruments in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries were made of materials that had once been alive: flutes were made of wood, and strings of gut—the small intestines of sheep and goats—rather than steel. The organic nature of the instruments makes for a warmer, more delicate sonority capable of rendering the subtlest nuances in the music. Vocal-like colors pervade the instrumental palette throughout, and help create an ideal blend between instruments and actual voices when singers perform with ACO as in Bach’s comic “Coffee Cantata.”
One of the pieces announced on ACO’s program Thursday evening was Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 4, which offers the opportunity for magnificent musical displays by the violin and the recorder. Between the recorder’s transparent, suave veil of sound and the brilliance of the violin, this entire concert is a delight. By the third section, it turns into a (friendly) competition of skill between the two instruments. Still, it would be impossible to choose the “star of the show” here. I highly recommend listening to this concert in its entirety; there are a few renditions of it available on YouTube.
It was truly moving to discover that Bach’s original manuscript of the Brandenburg Concertos has such a remarkable survival story: during World War II, a librarian hid it in his coat as he escaped into the woods from a train under bombardment. That manuscript was fated to be preserved in its original form and to continue existing as a tangible connection to the source. Today, American Classical Orchestra reminds us how returning to the source and recreating the original sounds intended by the composers is not only an homage, but also an artistic responsibility. Obviously, modern instruments can play the same notes, and they are more reliable since weather does not affect them as it does naturally-made instruments. In respecting the past and the geniality of its musical creations by not overlooking any detail, including the materials out of which instruments are made, ACO provides an invaluable service to humanity, to art, and to history. I hope that you—and I—will have the opportunity to experience American Classical Orchestra live in the not too distant future.
Featured photo of ACO playing Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 4. Back row from left: Aisslinn Nosky, Chloe Fedor, violin; Heather Paauwe, Maureen Murchie, viola; John Feeney, bass; Sarah Stone, cello; Jude Ziliak, Jessica Park, Judson Griffin, violin. Front row across from left (soloists): Augusta McKay Lodge, violin; Horacio Franco, Nina Stern, recorder.
Photo | ©photo Nan Melville