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Bach Goes Old School: Mellow & Gritty
by Gilad Edelman | Oct 8, 2013 12:02 pm
Posted to: Arts & Culture, Music
To the untrained eye, the instruments look more or less the same: long neck, shapely body, strings and a bow. But when Nayeon Kim and Jurrian van der Zanden take the stage Tuesday evening, they will feel centuries’ worth of difference.
At their performance of Bach pieces at Yale Collection of Musical Instruments (15 Hillhouse Ave. beginning at 5:30 p.m.), Kim and van der Zanden (pictured) will be playing a violin and a cello that were modeled after original Baroque-era instruments. Members of the Yale Baroque Ensemble, a yearlong postgraduate program of intensive Baroque music study, they are expected to master not only the music, but also the hardware.
Although the basic design of string instruments hasn’t changed in centuries, the technology was still progressing during the Baroque era, which lasted roughly from 1600 to 1750. As a result, the instruments on which Bach’s works were originally played were different from modern instruments. Playing Baroque-style instruments, van der Zanden said, is the only way to recreate what the music must have sounded like when it was first performed, hundreds of years before the advent of recording technology.
“We have no idea what it sounded like back then,” he said. “We just don’t know. We recreate what we think they had back then, and that will definitely give some insights.”
The biggest difference, the musicians said, is the use of gut strings in the Baroque instruments, which produce a different sound from modern strings, which are wrapped in metal. The Baroque bows are also weighted differently, and require a different grip.
In all, the subtle (to an outsider) differences combine to create a noticeably mellower, grittier sound. For the musicians, the playing experience is radically different.
“You can’t do the same things with this bow,” said van der Zanden. “Things that would be completely normal on a modern cello. So that makes for a very different approach.”
“The way of playing is totally different,” said Kim (pictured). “Now I enjoy it. The acoustics and the way of playing it is more fun in some ways. More sensitive.”
Van der Zanden described his Baroque study in terms more reminiscent of a rite of passage. “It’s a chance to enhance understanding of that music.”
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