Music as it appears on the written page is merely a road map. Much of how composers like Johann Sebastian Bach intended their music to be played — the ornamentation, the number of instruments employed, the style of concert hall in which compositions were to be performed — was never recorded.
Daniel Abraham has devoted much of his academic career to studying these nuances, and as cofounder, conductor, and artistic director of the Bach Sinfonia, he brings them to life. Entering its 17th year, the Silver Spring, Maryland-based nonprofit performs all of its concerts on period instruments.
“So many of the practices were just part of the culture of the time that they weren’t even notated,” said Abraham, co-chair of American University’s Department of Performing Arts. “There were assumptions made.”
The instruments in every player’s hands are either actually from the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries or exact replicas. Many of the string instruments have survived.
“Instruments of today are made for large concert halls, they’re made for power,” Abraham said. “In the eighteenth or seventeenth century they were made for clarity and articulation and shape in a different way. It’s not to say that we can’t make those things happen on modern instruments, but between a lighter bow and gut strings and a different shaped bridge the period instruments are very different.”
The group’s latest CD is a collection of Bach’s “Motets.” Next up: Vivaldi’s work for the lute.
Abraham has a background in both performance and conducting. He calls himself a “broke down Baroque trumpeter.”
There’s nothing rusty about the manner in which he leads the Sinfonia.
“When we do Mozart it’s probably with an orchestra of 24 to 30. It’s half as much as a major orchestra might produce,” he said. “The clarity is a completely different beast compared to the modern orchestra not just because of the size, but because of the equipment being used.
“Trumpets without any valves. It does take a different technique. The composers were composing for those instruments. The period instruments bring the music alive in a different way. There are certainly times in which the composers really relied on some of the quirks of those different instruments like horns to create some of the pitches. The players had to put their entire hand into the bell and close the bell, making the instrument shorter and raising the pitch. The sounds that created were a little snarly. When we listen to some of the Beethoven symphonies on period instruments, we hear that as an effect.”
Classical music critics have raved about the Sinfonia.
“One does not take on the Bach motets (seven of them at latest count) lightly,” read a review in the Washington Post. “Sinfonia’s splendid gifts were best wrapped up in a dynamite reading of ‘Singet dem Herrn’ with its relentless series of fugues that rolled out magnificently and with exuberant conviction.”
In addition to leading the Sinfonia, Abraham teaches music history — from antiquity to Baroque — leads the AU chamber singers, and last year ran an independent study for four students interested in conducting.
“We’re living a really special mission in the liberal arts that the conservatories can’t match in terms of variety and options and exposure and real intensive one-on-one relationships with a lot of faculty,” he said. “I think the level of music making is equivalent to a really fine state school or a lot of what’s going on at some of the conservatories. Our students are a very special breed in that they each find their path and their competition is within themselves.”