Scouring composers' scores for meaning

Conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt works to change the way musicians think

Classical Music

March 02, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

Given a lineage that includes two Holy Roman Emperors -- Charlemagne on his father's side, Leopold II on his mother's -- it's fitting that eminent Austrian conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt made his reputation as a ground-breaking explorer of the noblest music from the distant past. And those all over the world involved in the early music movement now can trace their artistic lineage to him.

But that tells only part of the story about Harnoncourt. You can hear more of it this week when the Washington Perform-ing Arts Society presents the Vienna Philharmonic, one would argue the greatest orchestra in the world, in its first appearances in 10 years at the Kennedy Center. Today, at 73, the conductor is as notable for his interpretations of Brahms and Bruckner as for those of Bach and Telemann. His programs in Washington will include symphonies of Beethoven, Schubert and Dvorak, as well as a big bouquet of Johann Strauss dances.

At the very least, Harnon-court's career demonstrates the folly of stereotyping. After founding the intimately scaled Concentus Musicus ensemble in Vienna in 1953, he was invariably thought of as a specialist in the performance of baroque music on authentic instruments of the period. Some folks couldn't imagine that he would one day stand in front of a giant symphony orchestra, let alone conduct the likes of Verdi's Aida or Berg's Violin Concerto or Strauss' Die Fledermaus. It didn't fit the image.

"But I'm an absolutely normal Viennese musician," Har-noncourt says by phone from Austria. "When I started music-making as a boy [in Graz, Austria], it was Schubert and Dvorak. I never lost that interest. And when I came to Vienna to study cello in 1948, practically every evening I heard a concert by the Vienna Symphony Or-chestra or the Vienna Philhar-monic, or went to the opera. And, for 17 years, from 1952 to 1969, I played cello in the Vienna Symphony."

So, even when, through the Concentus Musicus, he was changing the way people heard and appreciated early music, Harnoncourt was still immersed in the "regular" classical world. Since 1970, he has been a welcome figure in that world on the best podiums -- the Berlin Phil-harmonic, the Royal Concert-gebouw of Amsterdam and, especially, the Vienna Philhar-monic. "Now in any orchestra I work with, they expect a very specialized approach because they know who I am," he says. "We have a very good relationship. There's no resistance."

Harnoncourt doesn't expect such ensembles to play the way his own ensemble does. But he doesn't expect them to ignore the lessons of his extensive scholarship, either. Such matters as tempo and tone can be rethought by a conventional orchestra as easily as a period instrument group.

"An even balance between emotion and knowledge is very important," Harnoncourt says. "A lot of musicians approach everything with emotion and don't know anything about what they're playing, not even how a polka or a waltz or minuet is supposed to sound, or how it is danced. I remember how most string players used to play the Bach suites, which are all dance movements, without knowing what each dance means. In the first years of my conducting, the greatest difficulty was getting musicians to ask why."

Looking for clues

The conductor is always trying to uncover the meaning of a score, to seek out every clue left by a composer, to look past mistakes and traditions that might have become standard practice over the years and find the truth. He's also interested in making music interesting, which was one impetus behind forming his Concentus Musicus 50 years ago. "I could not believe that music before Bach could be so boring; the other arts of the time were very exciting," he says.

Sure enough, when Harnon-court and his musicians (including wife Alice on first violin) got their hands on works by Josquin and Monteverdi, the results were anything but dull. "I felt like a missionary back then," the conductor says. "We worked three or four years before we did the first concert; our goal was to find out something about the music, not success. Other musicians thought we were crazy to use these 'primitive tools,' but by using the instruments of the times I learned a lot."

When it comes to Johann Strauss and the rest of the Strauss family, you might think Harnoncourt wouldn't have to bother with historical study, certainly not when conducting the undisputed authority on that composer -- the Vienna Philharmonic. These musicians know every nuance, when to hold back or rush the beat, just how to make the music sing. They couldn't possibly learn anything new. Or could they?

In 2001, when Harnoncourt was first invited to conduct the famous New Year's Concert in Vienna, Clemens Hellsberg, chairman of the orchestra, wrote that it was fascinating to "re-examine the Philharmonic's Strauss tradition through the eyes of this analytical, yet so impulsive, conductor."

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