Brave new Baroque

Sally Jackson, bassoon soloist with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, leads Peter Farrugia through the world of period music.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is unique. It’s powered by a self-defining ethos that runs counter to the way most modern orchestras are structured. Based on ideals of democracy and artistic authenticity, the orchestra sees its players as actively guiding the artistic direction of the whole group. Dangers to be flagged and avoided include ‘playing as a matter of routine’ and ‘recording objectives being more important than creative objectives’.

From a bassoonist’s point of view, playing on a period instrument makes it so much easier to blend with cellos

All in all, it’s in the performance itself that the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment comes powerfully alive, making present the music of venerable composers in a way that is contemporary, relevant and historically sound.

Talking about her involvement with the orchestra, bassoonist Sally Jackson says “it really is a very interesting thing to be involved with, and I’m always surprised by the way modern musicians are so quick to criticise period music on period instruments. They say that if Bach were asked to choose between a harpsichord or a Steinway, he would have preferred a Steinway – but he’d obviously have written something completely different. His music inhabits its own sound world, and that has nothing to do with playing on an inferior instrument.”

Jackson completed her musical studies at the Royal Academy of Music, studying with Gwyddion Brooke, John Orford and Felix Warnock, before working with various high-profile orchestras. She’s currently made a home for herself with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

Talking about her instrument, Jackson cites early examples of bassoons, including one from 1650 – “It’s got two keys,” she says, “while a modern bassoon’s got 26!” – highlighting the development of orchestral instruments demanding increased sophistication, by composers writing for larger ensembles in ever larger concert halls.

“Modern instruments are not designed to play period music – certainly from a bassoonist’s point of view, playing on a period instrument makes it so much easier to blend with cellos.

“They were designed differently, made to blend, not as powerhouse solo instruments. The older examples add colour to the baseline, and that’s very difficult to do with a modern bassoon.”

Reflecting on Bach’s Brandenburg concerto for recorder and trumpet, Jackson explains it would be impossible for a composer to write something similar today, simply because the instruments no longer inhabit the same particular soundscape. “If you did that with modern instruments the trumpet would obliterate the recorder, but baroque instruments complement one another beautifully.”

In pursuit of authenticity, Jackson and her peers do their best to recreate the sound world of whatever period they are focused on. It’s a fine example of the eclectic reality we all inhabit, drawing inspiration throughout history – but while the orchestra is committed to a particular composer, they live that paradigm as fully as possible.

“We obviously haven’t got the benefit of a recording,” says Jackson, “but I would love to visit Bach’s orchestra and know if they could really play what he wrote. The system then was incredibly different; they only had one or two rehearsals. But this would have been all they played, day in and day out. These musicians were in Bach’s orchestra and he provided the music, exclusively.”

Today’s attitudes towards music have shifted in approach, and Jackson sees the potential for restoring at least the spirit of that former dedication. Music colleges would benefit from more collaboration with varied musicians, in an environment of learning and experimentation. Proficiency with period instruments opens a student up to future employment with a period orchestra.

“Modern teachers,” says Jackson, “are quite hostile to learning on this kind of instrument; there’s the idea that it’s no good. That attitude is disappearing, though many modern teachers are still uneasy about their students playing period instruments. But it’s when I started on baroque instruments that I really felt like a musician – seeing how the pieces fit together. It would have been the easy way out, simply playing it on a modern instrument.”

A major contribution by the orchestra musicians will be nurturing local talent, and helping to form a baroque orchestra in Malta schooled in an ensemble environment, where learning the music becomes a wholly collaborative effort.

“I started playing because I got into the European Baroque Orchestra, and spent six months touring with different directors. That’s the best way to get an idea of what it’s all about.”

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment will perform at St John’s Co-Cathedral as the centrepiece of the much anticipated Baroque Festival on January 17 at 7.30pm.

There’s so much energy and attention focused on the burgeoning success of baroque music in Europe and America, that Malta is perfectly placed to benefit from the general mood.

With Valletta as its capital, and a cultural legacy already receptive to the complexity and wonder of the Baroque, it is through the efforts of people like Jackson, the orchestra, and initiatives like the Valletta International Baroque Festival that a reappraisal of this cornerstone of our national heritage will flourish – dramatically influencing the future direction of musical appreciation in Malta.


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