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Comparing Notes With the Baroques

Violinist and Conductor Andrew Manze Sees Blank Spaces in Original Scores as an Invitation to Improvise


Unlike jazz artists, classical musicians are trained to play the score, the whole score and nothing but the score.

That may be well and good for most music, but it leaves something to be desired when taking up a baroque--or older--score.

"The page has too long been seen as the end of a performance," said violinist and conductor Andrew Manze, one of the most creative lights in baroque music today.

" 'Get those notes right and it's OK.' No. The page was a very limiting shorthand form of what [those composers] were doing. It was a point of departure."

So expect to hear some extra creativity when Manze and the London-based Academy of Ancient Music play Bach, Handel, Geminiani and Wassenaer on Sunday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa.

"For me, the 'Damascus moment' was when I first looked at the sonatas of [Heinrich] Biber," Manze, 35, said during a recent interview from Santa Fe, N.M., the concert stop before the Costa Mesa date.

"There were many notes on the page, but also what I interpreted as space. The composer deliberately left spaces for the performer to fit in. Had he wanted to write more notes, he could have easily put more in. . . .

"I thought, 'This is incomplete in the sense that the performer--and now I know the audience too--is the missing ingredient.' At the time, I thought, 'This is wonderful, there's this incredible freedom, more freedom than any music I've seen.' "

Manze didn't set out to be a musician, however, much less such a freedom-loving one. He was studying classics at Cambridge University when friends gave him a baroque violin to play. That changed his life.

He went on to study music at the royal academies of London and The Hague, and later became concertmaster of the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra. He was appointed associate director of the Academy of Ancient Music in 1996.

The original academy, incidentally, had been established in London in 1726 for the purpose of playing what was then considered "old" music--initially anything composed at least a century earlier, but soon to include contemporary composers such as Handel. Christopher Hogwood revived it in 1973 and now shares duties with Manze and associate conductor Paul Goodwin.

Manze downplays some elements many of his colleagues consider critical in playing this music. On the scale of importance, he rates a suitable instrument at 5%, appropriate stylistic techniques at 10% and background reading at 5%. But imagination he rates at 70%.

That's right: 70% imagination. You can hear that in everything he plays. But it's a difficult element to quantify.

"A lot of musicology ignores certain things that are unmeasurable," Manze said. "Many musicians do so as well.

"The fact is that most baroque music was written by European white males, which is not PC. They were almost exclusively Christian, and devout Christians, and nowadays the world of musicology is sort of intellectual, atheistic and agnostic. That religious element is ignored in the music. Yet it was the source of inspiration. That's something widely ignored by my colleagues. It's such a shame."

Plus, many of these composers were outstanding personalities whose "own idiosyncrasies were an important part of creating the piece," he said.

"If we had been privileged to hear Vivaldi or Corelli, we would have been bowled over in the way people were bowled over by Presley.

"But my belief is that they wouldn't want anyone to imitate them. If we asked [one of them] how to play his music, I suspect his answer would be along the lines, 'I don't care. I only composed it. You're the one playing it, not me.' I think that's a healthy thing."

As for the audience's impact on a performance, that's what "keeps the concerts individual events," Manze said.

"What brought it home was something that happened earlier this year. We were on a tour with seven concerts. The first six were normal. The seventh was for a roomful of children, a Sunday afternoon concert, lots of young people, 8 to 16, and we couldn't change our program. We had to immediately think how to adapt the program to make it suitable listening for an 8-year-old.

"What we tried to do was use brighter colors. We turned the basic story line of the piece into a kind of fairy tale, as black and white as that, as clear as possible, and also tried to perform in a way that would entertain the children, keep them watching. I think it did work. They seemed happy."

It's not that Manze ignores scholarship.

"I do read the treatises. But I do that bearing in mind my classics training, where we're trying to reconstruct a dead and ancient world from patchy and very partisan, very prejudiced documents.

"Onstage, I'm never thinking about what I read, only what works in this acoustic right now with this music with this audience.

"I try to make my musical decisions as late as possible. If possible, at the moment I play, rather than prepare in the privacy in my practice room."

Chris Pasles can be reached at (714) 966-5602 or by e-mail at


Andrew Manze and the Academy of Ancient Music will play works by Handel, Bach and other baroque composers at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. $34 to $50. (714) 556-2787.

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