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Avior Byron

My name is Avior Byron and I am a musicologist, blogger and composer. I write books, articles and a blog about music, performance, research, and theory. Read more at my about page

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Interview with David Shemer - The Performance of Early Music - Part II

Interview with David Shemer - The Performance of Early Music - Part II

This is the second part of the interview with David Shemer. Click here in order to read the first part of the interview with David Shemer on the performance of early music.

Could you please tell us about some of the difficulties of forming the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra?  

How much cyberspace do you have? The difficulties were prodigious, and I only wish I could say that they are all overcome by now. Twenty years ago, when I decided to start a baroque orchestra, it was not much more than an adventure - let’s try and see what happens. There was practically no infrastructure for a baroque orchestra: hardly any period instruments, very few trained baroque performers, and no money whatsoever to buy the former, to train the latter, to rent rehearsal spaces, to buy or rent orchestra material - let alone to pay anybody any kind of fee. There was a good will of a small group of people who were involved in the orchestra’s first steps, and that good will proved to be sufficient to pull through the incredibly difficult starting period, to solve at least some of the problems that seemed insurmountable. The development was slow, but promising. My hope was that if we’d manage to survive the initial stage and to prove our viability, the continuation would be easier: there will be plenty of people who would want to help. After all, a baroque orchestra is something that this country’s musical culture really needs, right? Well, lots of people seemed to agree, in principal, but there was preciously little practical help other than friendly “way-to-go!” pats on my shoulder. I think that this reflected an ambiguous attitude of the Israeli musical establishment to the very idea of historical performance and to musical authenticity. Things did change somewhat in more resent years, but for a long time - much longer than in most places in Europe - HIP [Historical Musical Performance, A.B.] was considered here as something for "freaks" only. Typically, many people, both individuals and representatives of the musical establishment, found it a lot more convenient "to sit on the fence" [not to take any stance, A.B.] and to observe our desperate efforts without committing themselves too much - perhaps, even musing, how long it would take us to give up… In the due course we joined the very crowded list of orchestras supported by the Ministry of Education and Culture, and to this day this is our main source of income, other than selling tickets to concerts. We wouldn’t survive without this subsidy, and yet, it doesn’t amount to much more than mere survival.

How would you define the current artistic and economic situation of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra (JBO)? 

When I think 20 years back, I feel both a very big pride and an equally big frustration. We started, as I already told you, practically from zero. And now it is an orchestra of a substantial public standing, with subscription series in Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv, with constantly growing audience, with successful appearances abroad and invitations for further tours (including the prestigious Bach Festival in Annsbach, Germany, in 2011). We have a very impressive list of guest conductors and soloists - starting with our Honorary conductor, Maestro Andrew Parrott, and including such world leading figures in the early music field as James Bowman, Peter Harvey, Emily van Evera, Walter Reiter, John Holloway, Maggie Faultless, Catherine Mackintosh, Roberto Gini, Michael Schneider, Alberto and Paolo Grazzi and many others. So many of them are happy to be invited back, in spite of the fact that the financial remuneration we can offer them is long way below their standard. But most importantly, I am proud that among our players are now some of this country’s finest musicians. Quite a few talented young string players have been attracted to the orchestra as the best option for them to get exposed to the period playing, and we are constantly training and preparing new "baroquenics" who eventually join the orchestra’s ranks.

Why, then, big frustration? Because to some extent it still is as a nearly impossible uphill struggle as it has been from the outset. All this growing and pretty sophisticated operation called JBO, with all these many wonderful programs (and I truly think that our programs really are wonderful), is managed by a tiny team of people working crazy hours for fees that barely cover our expenses, and without even a little office or telephone line to its name; I, personally, have to spend totally disproportional amounts of time on administration issues, rather than on being, actually, the orchestra’s musical director. The best of our players can only commit themselves to JBO’s projects when there are no conflicting offers from elsewhere. And as they really are great players, there often are conflicting offers, and JBO’s fees are not really competitive. Thus, nothing can be taken for granted, and every project often feels as if the orchestra has to be reinvented from scratch… We have a fantastic field record of training next generations of Baroque players who then find themselves in key positions of the early music scene in the world - most notably, Kati Debretzeni, one of the central HIP names in Europe, who did her first steps in period playing with JBO in the early 1990s… I certainly do not blame them: the early music field in Israel cannot offer them enough opportunity of professional development – or, indeed, of financially supporting themselves. By the way, most of these people stay in close touch with JBO, which they consider as kind of their Alma Mater, and come here to perform with us on every possible opportunity.

To sum it all up, as I said before - a baroque orchestra is something that this country’s musical culture really needs, right? I, actually, do strongly believe in it, and not only me; so do my colleagues at JBO. So, we go on…

Taruskin had argued that much of the early music performance practice was highly influenced by the performance practice of Stravinsky. Do you agree with this claim? Taruskin and others argue against the concept of ‘authenticity’ in performance of early music. What is your opinion concerning the issue of ’authenticity’?

I think that Taruskin’s claim is absolutely right, insofar as HIP and Stravinsky’s performance practice having common roots. But what Taruskin makes of it has nothing to do with what early music today stands for. Remarkably, if you read Taruskin carefully, you cannot but notice that he is aware of that, too! Taruskin is a towering figure in the field of musicology and musical criticism, and yet, he fails to avoid the same very trap that many much lesser critics and musicologists fall into. Time and again, one reads in reviews of an early music performance phrases like "performances on historical instruments often sound dry, detached and "correct", but in this concert there was nothing of it: N’s playing was vivid and highly emotional", etc. And one cannot help wondering - where did critics hear all these "dry and detached" performances? And if they did, how could they know that "dryness and detachment" stem from use of period instruments and performance practices? Of course, some historical performances are more interesting and exciting than the others. Surprise, surprise: so are "mainstream" performances! But did anyone ever say that X’s playing was emotionally charged, even though he/she played on a Steinway? Sure enough, HIP people usually aspire to know what they are doing - but why should that rule out their emotional involvement? Indeed, it doesn’t; Taruskin never tries to hide his admiration for performers like Bylsma, Leonhardt (hardly fringe figures of the early music movement!) and quite a few others. So, the question might be, isn’t this a case of putting theory before practice? Here is the theory: HIP is a load of "do" and "do not", it is all full of rules which must infringe on performers’ intuition, rendering their playing or singing dry and cerebral. And if so many actual performances do not, in fact, sound at all dry and cerebral - well, too bad. These must be exceptions - and thus Taruskin turns Leonhardt and Bylsma into such exceptions, and every time a music critic (in spite himself?) likes an HIP concert, he labels it "an exception". Mind you, a really good concert, just as a really good work of any art, IS an exception, but this has nothing to do with the above mentioned theory…

How, then, are HIP and Stravinsky connected? Stravinsky often expressed his views on musical performance in an extreme and provocative way, but they boil down to one basic thing: a performer is not alone in the process of music making. He or she is the part - albeit an important part - of a process that begins with the composer and ends with the listener. One of the prominent characteristics of late Romanticism (which, to a certain extent, is still with us today) is the cult of artistic freedom, which included also a practically unlimited freedom of the musical performer. Why otherwise would composers mark their scores so scrupulously? Monteverdi and Bach didn’t need to resort to such detailed markings: they had no reason to assume that their performers would try to do anything other than realize, in the best possible way, the composers’ intentions. And, as the performers lived, generally, just around the corner, these intentions were for them not really anything mysterious. Stravinsky’s attitude, shared in various ways by quite a few musicians of the early 20th century, is marked by his unwillingness to accept the mentioned above total freedom. For centuries, there was little or no difference between the composer and the performer. Both made music (often it was one and the same person), and their activity was interdependent, symbiotic. Stravinsky - the Neo-Classicist! - felt nostalgia for this symbiosis. So does HIP. However, HIP does not need to go Neo-Classic. Its subject-matter is the kind of music that has this symbiosis in it, and one of HIPs’ goals is discovering this symbiosis and bringing it back to life and to musical practice…

"Authenticity" seems to be another example of shooting first and then marking the goal. It is easy to say that playing music today exactly like it was played 300 or 400 years ago would barely be possible, and even if, in the unlikely eventuality, we succeeded it this endeavor, how would we know that we did? Ergo, Taruskin is right in his objection to authenticity in the performance of early music? Well, only if the claim of authenticity is based on "doing exactly as They did" - and nobody ever seriously made this claim! Authenticity, to quote Bruce Haynes’ wonderful recent book The End of Early Music, is "a statement of intent". Haynes argues that "what produces interesting results is the attempt to be historically accurate, that is, authentic".

Personally, I don’t use the word "authenticity" much - partly, because of its bad PR, to which Taruskin’s writings contributed quite a bit. But I certainly don’t object to it - particularly, if it is used in its "Haynesian" context of pursuing historical accuracy, to the best of our ability. I think, though, that HIP - Historically Informed (or better still - to quote Bruce Haynes again, Historically Inspired) Performance - better reflects what we do in early music.

Related posts

First part of the interview with David Shemer on the performance of early music.

Telemann, Hogwood and the listener/composer/performer relationship

Further reading

Richard Taruskin: Text and Act

Igor Stravinsky: The Poetics of Music

Bruce Haynes: The End of Early Music

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