Old Music, New Again

I think the harpsichord is probably the more difficult instrument to make music on because it's not inherently a musical instrument," says music director and founder for the Bach Collegium San Diego Ruben Valenzuela. "The piano is designed to make music -- it has a pedal to sustain notes, it's very sonorous, it rings. A harpsichord is sort of, like, not that. But when played well, if you have a really good instrument, then the harpsichord can be very expressive, especially for 18th-century music." Valenzuela's harpsichord is a replica of Carlo Grimaldi's design, first built in 1697 (one of Grimaldi's original harpsichords is still intact and resides at the Germanisches Museum in Nuremberg, Germany). "I had it built by a gentleman in New York," says Valenzuela. The eight-foot-long, approximately three-foot-tall instrument is made of cypress and boxwood and weighs around 100 pounds. "It's about six months old and was literally built from scratch using [Grimaldi's] plans." The replica cost Valenzuela $12,000.

Valenzuela's harpsichord is one of 18 period instruments to be played in the collegium's performance of Handel's Messiah, taking place at St. Paul's Cathedral on Sunday, June 3. "These were the instruments that were in use when this music was being written," he says. "The older instruments bring to the surface a lot of nuance and subtlety which is lost on modern instruments."

Modern trumpets have valves that, when depressed, work like keys to change the pitch. Eighteenth-century trumpets are known as "natural trumpets." The natural trumpet player must achieve desired notes using only his lips. "It's a perilous instrument to play; there are the same amount of notes, but you have to make this all happen with just your lips, like on a bugle," says Valenzuela. "The modern trumpet is a very secure instrument and a lot easier to play, stable in terms of what it can do. The players that play these [earlier] instruments are highly specialized." Valenzuela knows few musicians who play both early and modern versions of an instrument.

Wind instruments, like oboes and trumpets, do not have the same "staying power" as stringed instruments. "You're not going to find wind instruments from that period that are still playing. They're all in museums." Modern production of period instruments is "nothing out of the ordinary," and Valenzuela insists that perfect replicas are easy to obtain.

A handful of the violins in Valenzuela's orchestra are 18th-century originals. "They use gut strings instead of steel strings, like catgut," Valenzuela explains. "When you think of a baroque violin, either played in that style or the instrument itself, it is closer to a folk or country fiddle."

The gut strings on a baroque violin are not pulled as taut as the steel strings on modern violins, lending the earlier instrument a softer sound. "A modern bow is designed to play a very even tone, from the bottom of the bow clear to the top, which was the aesthetic from the 19th Century to present day -- to standardize things to have a good, long sound from the bottom of the bow to the tip. The baroque bow is completely opposite -- their idea was, we want a very small portion of the bow to be the 'good' part of the bow, and the other part is not. They were looking for sound that is not uniform -- a note starts and it develops and gets to the good part and, like, breaks away."

Valenzuela says baroque is making a comeback. "Philip Glass and Steve Reich [present-day composers] are often thought of as minimalists. In some ways, they were trying to get away from 19th-century and even early-20th-century German romanticism, which ruled and still rules. Any symphony orchestra's playlist is heavily weighted with Beethoven and Mozart; that was sort of the style that took over a good chunk of time."

Though playing of period instruments is popular, Valenzuela has encountered modern-instrument musicians who think studying older instruments is a waste of time.

"There used to be a great division between modern players and us. Modern players say, 'What is the point of playing old instruments? Why go back? We play the improvements of your instruments, which were in transition to become our instruments.' But modern players now understand that, as in any other field, it's an aesthetic. I'm trying to get the music to speak in the way it was supposed to, with the composer's original intentions." -- Barbarella

Handel's Messiah, performed on period instruments Sunday, June 3 7 p.m. St. Paul's Cathedral 2728 Sixth Avenue Hillcrest Cost: $60 reserved seating; $35 general admission; $25 student Info: 619-341-1726 or www.bachcollegiumsd.com

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