Concert evokes Haydn's 'newness'

A local radio station reminds me daily that "all music was once new." That applies equally, of course, to 2009 as well as 1761. Franz Joseph Haydn, who died...

A local radio station reminds me daily that "all music was once new." That applies equally, of course, to 2009 as well as 1761. Franz Joseph Haydn, who died

200 years ago in May 1809, never heard his music flawlessly played on digital technology. Yet that did not stop him from being the longest living and most famous musical composer of his era. And his music was constantly "new."

Saturday night's concert by the Center for Early Music Orchestra in Mitchell Auditorium at the College of St. Scholastica evoked a time and sound when Haydn's music was indeed new. "Haydn From the Local Authorities," as the program was titled, was a scintillating success. Three symphonies and two excerpts from oratorios were played live on instruments replicating those of the 18th century. What a treat!

Music director Shelley Gruskin was rhythmic, relaxed and yet focused in his interpretation of Haydn's scores. His obvious enthusiasm during the fast movements was matched by his lyricism in the melodic slow movements. The rapport of the 15 to 20 musicians on stage was very congenial, like a musical family celebrating a special occasion.

Perhaps the oddest aspect of the evening was the audience, quietly sitting in the rows of Mitchell Auditorium rather than milling around, chatting and sipping local wines and cheeses. But there we were, listening to tenor Bill Bastian sing about summer, winter and the creation of humankind. We also heard Haydn's depiction of the morning sunrise, some chickens and an ever-fresh surprise.


To create these sounds, the stringed instruments are less intense and harder to keep in tune than modern models. The brass instruments do not have valves, so the lips do a lot of work to create musical pitches. The woodwinds are less predictable than high-tech versions of today. And even the tympani sticks are hard, creating crisp shots rather than mellow tremblings.

In the middle was Gruskin, energetically recalling a distant era when live music was the order of the day, keeping society in step and pleasing the ladies and gentlemen of many a court. Haydn's early Symphony No. 6 captures the sun's intrusion into the calmness of the night. Even the musicians seemed to wake up gradually as they performed, slightly improving their sense of togetherness as the work progressed. Early French horns create unpredictable sounds at best, and the sense of freshness is never far away. Morning, in Vienna in 1761 must have seemed like that.

The endless humor of Symphony No. 83, nicknamed "the chicken (hen)," comes from the height of Haydn's creative genius. The gentle clucking of oboe and strings must have lightened many a heart in the rustic metropolis that was Vienna. With dancing, and with a brilliant finale, the whole audience was caught up in the smiles.

Haydn wrote dozens of operas, as well as oratorios, chamber music, concertos, plus more than 100 symphonies in his 77 years. Choosing two, Bastian sang about a sweltering summer, "Distressful Nature Fainting Sinks," and its opposite, "By Frost Cemented," from "The Seasons," Haydn's final oratorio. His lightness kept the spirit of the changing seasons front and center. Later, he sang "And God Created Man," followed by a very human poem about the joy and bliss of human life stemming from "The Creation" itself.

With true surprise, Gruskin frolicked through one of the most popular of Haydn's symphonies, No. 94 in G major. In the surprise loud blasts of the gentle slow movement, he even feigned being startled. The finale was a great romp with lots of false conclusions, before sailing into the final chords.

The musicians on stage were clearly as happy as Gruskin as the evening proceeded. Something about the genuine "newness" of this sound made the music seem very disarming and refreshing. Haydn clearly has survived into the world of modern instruments and professional recording studios, but the quaintly unpredictable nature of performance in his time allows us to gain a sparkling perspective on the raw creative edge he fathered. Papa Haydn will remain vibrant a lot longer than any of us.

Samuel Black is a Duluth pianist/organist who teaches writing at the College of St. Scholastica and creates music at Duluth Congregational Church.

What To Read Next
Get Local