Going for Baroque: Orchestra strives for authenticity

It’s said that being a musician takes guts. In the case of Baroque musicians who play on period instruments, the saying is literally true.

Players who strive for historical accuracy in performances of early classical music use strings made of stretched, dried and twisted sheep’s intestines on their rare period instruments.

It’s just one of the many lengths that Baroque musicians go to in order to achieve an authentic sound, a sound Atlanta audiences can check out for themselves Sunday when the Atlanta Baroque Orchestra performs a program of traditional songs from Spain and Latin America from the 1600s and 1700s at Roswell Presbyterian Church.

“What you experience with early instruments is a little like going to an ethnic restaurant,” says Brent Wissick, who has played viola da gamba, an early form of the cello, with the Atlanta Baroque Orchestra for 14 years. “It’s food you know, but it’s an exciting new way of preparing and presenting it. It’s familiar, but completely new.”

Although famous composers like Handel, Vivaldi, and Pachelbel are often played nowadays by full symphony orchestras, the music of those early composers would have sounded different in their own time. Baroque orchestras were typically smaller than the symphony orchestras that developed in the 19th century — just eight musicians will play in Sunday’s performance — and the instruments, like the viola da gamba, were somewhat different iterations than what is found now in contemporary orchestras.

“All of these different textures come together in a way that makes you hear the music differently,” says Grammy-nominated soprano Nell Snaidas, who often performs with early music ensembles like the Atlanta Baroque Orchestra. She will sing traditional Spanish songs with the ensemble alongside counter-tenor José Lemos on Sunday.

“The sounds are very clear, but they’re just different than you’ve heard before,” she says. “There’s something that’s more like popular music, folk or jazz, that you can hear sometimes in historical performance practice that you don’t hear so much in classical music.”

The Atlanta Baroque Orchestra, formed in 1998, is the oldest professional Baroque chamber orchestra in the South and although many of its founding members originally hailed from Atlanta, now the orchestra draws musicians from all over the country. The performers, many of whom teach at universities and perform regularly with other such ensembles, travel to Georgia for each concert, usually arriving about three days in advance of a performance and depart not long after the final note has sounded.

“It’s pretty intense once everyone gets into town,” says ABO artistic director and violinist Julie Andrijeski.

Andrijeski lives in Cleveland, where she teaches at Case Western University, but flies into town along with the other musicians in advance of a concert.

“We have six hours of rehearsal a day for three days,” she says. “It’s intense, but our styles match easily, so it feels like enough time to bring the program to fruition. We’re familiar with the repertoire and with each other, so it’s a fun process.”

“It sounds hectic and stressful, but the fact is, our world is kind of small,” says Snaidas, who is based in New York, but often sings with ensembles like ABO. “I’ve done similar programs with these same musicians in different places. I know just about everybody that’s coming on this gig, so it’s a very familiar and familial feeling.”

A recent surge of interest in authentic Baroque music, coupled with the relative rarity of performers trained to play it, keeps the musicians busy.

“Part of the reason it’s gaining popularity is people’s fascination with history and authenticity,” says Andrijeski. “For us, it’s just so enlightening to have the right equipment to play these pieces in the way the composers probably intended them to be heard.”

Even though such groups go a long way to achieve an authentic sound, the musicians say it’s ultimately about creating great music, regardless of the instruments being played.

“Playing Baroque instruments helps bring the music alive a little bit more, “says Andrijeski. “With the gut strings that we play on and the bow technique we use and with the continuos (accompanying) section of guitars and harp, it just gives a lighter, more lively feeling to it. But I still wouldn’t say, ‘Go see this concert because it’s on Baroque instruments.’ I’d say, ‘Go see this concert because it’s really great music.’”

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