Wednesday's concert by the Netherlands-based Orchestra of the 18th Century, presented amid the gilded quasi-splendor of the downtown Orpheum Theatre as part of the Chamber Music in Historic Sites series, provided further evidence that period-performance practitioners are now so numerous and varied in their approaches that what was once simplistically regarded as non-interpretive music-making has become fertile territory for self-expression.
A decade ago rules governing performance on the kinds of instruments for which 18th-Century composers wrote dictated fast tempos, crisp articulation, avoidance of string vibrato and legato. It was an art opposed to practices established in the 19th Century and maintained in our own.
Today, there are as many styles of presenting the old stuff, as many versions of "authenticity," as there are presenters.
Take the 40-odd-member Orchestra of the 18th Century: Its conductor is Frans Bruggen, one of the movement's pioneers as a performer on a variety of antique flutes.
He and his skillful players offered a Mozart program: the familiar symphonies in C, K. 425 ("Linz"), and G minor, K. 550 (second version, with clarinets), and the Symphonie Concertante in E-flat, K. 297b, with wind quartet. The latter was heard not in one of the scholarly reconstructions currently making the rounds but in the purportedly corrupt, familiar edition with solo clarinet rather than solo flute. The confident quartet here consisted of oboist Ku Ebbinge, clarinetist Eric Hoeprich, bassoonist Danny Bond and hornist Ab Koster.
All three works were given sensible, non-threatening performances, comfortable even, one suspects, for a listener not attuned to new ways of presenting old music.
Bruggen's tempos were leisurely, with the minuets of both symphonies rather heavy-gaited (and their trios slow) in comparison to what one hears from other antiquarians. There were times, as in the Symphonie Concertante adagio movement, where the conductor's elegant restraint and finicky exploration of the softer dynamics proved soporific.
In this orchestra, the violins don't zip or dash. The bass line is emphatically emphasized, and, while textural clarity is maintained, it doesn't aspire to bright-toned transparency. String vibrato is avoided (as are shotgun timpani blasts) but some enhancing legato is permitted.
An easygoing coziness prevailed--abetted by the Orpheum's plushly warm acoustic--rather than the cut-and-slash tension more frequently encountered these days.
The unassuming, un-revolutionary Bruggen and his forces may not make the pulse race, but their soft-edged way does represent another, valid viewpoint on questions susceptible to an infinite variety of responses.