The omniscient, all-controlling father figure-or, his professional namesake, the maestro-has played an inordinately large role in the last hundred years of classical music. It’s worth remembering, however, that before the second half of the 19th century, when the first professional conductors like Hans von Bulow and Arthur Nikisch emerged to handle the bloated forces required for symphonic performances, the fellow up there beating time was either just a slightly elevated musician or the composer himself. Since then, the fortunes of classical music have largely been dependent on the will and whim of the man on the podium-the Toscanini, the Furtwangler, the Szell, the Bernstein, the Solti.
The benefits of this are obvious. For one thing, it’s impossible to keep a symphonic epic by, say, Mahler from falling apart without a pretty strong traffic cop. For another, maestros have been very good for the box office: Their uplifted profiles look good on record jackets and PBS specials and, in our personality-obsessed century, they’ve given audiences something more to think about than just the music.
But for the poor vassals at their patent-leathered feet-the players-the obligatory deference extended to the maestro has been little more than grudging. A few years ago, a study reported that symphony orchestra musicians felt worse about petty revolts among the rank-and-file, such as the one about a player in the New York Philharmonic who expressed his disdain for Erich Leinsdorf by repeatedly dropping a set of keys on the stage during rehearsals-not on Leinsdorf’s beat.
In recent years, this restiveness has taken a more productive turn. New York’s Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is the most celebrated example of how assiduously cultivated collective empathy can make good music without a conductor. However happy the Orpheus musicians are, it’s an approach that limits them to repertoire that doesn’t demand more than a few dozen players. A better, even more challenging solution to the Maestro Dependency problem has been found by an ensemble in England whose recordings I have long admired. Its members are all specialists in playing period instruments-that is, instruments made according to the standards of the period in which the music was written. They call themselves the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, which is much too unwieldy a name to convey what is so remarkable about them: their fluency with music written over two centuries, from Vivaldi to Tchaikovsky, and their eagerness to adapt themselves to as many conductors as they can find who share their goal of zestful-and egoless-music-making. They made their New York debut on Aug. 3 and 4 at the Mostly Mozart Festival; in person, their effect was even more exhilarating than I had imagined.
There can’t be many virtuosos on the level of the pianist Emanuel Ax who would willingly give up the cushy splendor of a modern Steinway for the timorous quaintness of a 19th-century Broadwood. However, that’s what happened at the O.A.E.’s first concert, in Avery Fisher Hall, for a performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op. 21, which was composed in 1829-11 years before the piano that Mr. Ax had at his disposal was built. In recent years, there has been much de-vaporizing of Chopin as the arch-Romantic of the salon, with the aim of showing him to have been a rigorous, even percussive, classicist and contrapuntalist with unmistakable affinities to Mozart and-farther back-to Bach. Mr. Ax’s resplendent playing of the concerto-written when Chopin was, astonishingly, just 19-made the case for the revisionists more incisively than any modern instrument could have.
Although the piano’s middle register seemed lusterless and its tone got clangy on the fortissimos (cavernous Avery Fisher was hardly the most congenial setting), its way with Chopin was revelatory. The action of its keys had a springiness that made the composer’s ravishing cascades and jumps sound like a sure-legged colt being let out in the morning air. (Mr. Ax’s subtleties on a period piano in this piece are even more pronounced in a new recording of the concerto and other Chopin works with the O.A.E. and the conductor Sir Charles Mackerras; Sony 63371.) For once, this Chopin did not wash over you; it recalled a piece of advice an old piano teacher once gave me about a fleet passage in one of the Ballades: “Think of it like water rushing over pebbles. “This time you could feel the pebbles.
During the Chopin, as well as in the “Paris” and “Prague” symphonies by Mozart, the O.A.E., wonderfully led by conductor Paul Daniel, played with a forcefulness that belied the antiquity of the instruments. The natural-gut strings had a bracing stringency; the horns and winds had a wonderfully clear “hole” in the middle of their mournful clarion calls. As I am often reminded, period instruments more readily summon up the sounds of nature. Above all, I was impressed by the cohesiveness of these players: Behind the crispness of sound, the unanimity of purpose and approach was palpable.
And so the O.A.E. demonstrated the following night at Alice Tully Hall, when-this time without a conductor and in smaller numbers-they took up an earlier set of instruments for a program of William Boyce, Vivaldi, Handel and Bach. Once again, the soloists were electrifying-the flutist Lisa Beznosiuk and the soprano Emma Kirkby, whose many recordings are cherished by early music lovers the world over. The program’s tour de force was their “Sweet Bird” from Handel’s oratorio L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato in which flute and singer matched each other in avian acrobatics.
But for me, the highlight was the O.A.E.’s playing of a work I could whistle in my sleep-Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G major. What was it that made me feel as though I were hearing the work for the first time? My gaze settled on two players: the wonderfully named leader in the concertmaster’s seat, Margaret Faultless, and the first-chair bass player, Chi-chi Nwanoku. Whereas Ms. Faultless, with her baroque violin tucked under her chin, displayed an almost seraphic command of the music, Ms. Nwanoku, with her bulky instrument cradled firmly between her legs, seemed to be driving the music from within, like some ecstatic engine.
The next morning, I had breakfast with David Pickard, the O.A.E.’s general manager. He told me that the orchestra had been founded in 1986 by a group of period musicians in and around London who wanted to maintain an “identity” unfettered by any one conductor. One result of putting themselves first, he said, was that the musicians were in the unusual position of being able to pick and choose among many of the leading British and European conductors, who loved nothing better than getting an invitation. In London next year, the orchestra will be performing all nine Beethoven symphonies under five of their “favorite” conductors: Roger Norrington, Charles Mackerras, Simon Rattle, Frans Brueggen and Ivan Fischer. “The challenge of working with conductors, each of whom has a completely different approach to Beethoven, shows exactly what the orchestra is all about,” Mr. Pickard said.
The orchestra, he said, drew from 50 to 75 players, all of whom had flourishing careers outside the O.A.E., many of them with small chamber groups. Along with the cross-fertilization that results from the pooling of so many different experiences, he said, the orchestra benefits from the players’ constant research into the instruments used in the composer’s own time. For example, the first oboist, Anthony Robson, owns at least 20 different oboes, all of which meet specific historical requirements.
It occurred to me that Mr. Pickard had not used the term that causes such hair-pulling when the subject of “period” instruments comes up-authenticity. “We try never to use the word ‘authentic,’” he said. “It smacks of self-righteousness and superiority, and that’s not what we’re about at all.”
“What are you about, then?” I asked.
“Let’s put it this way,” he said. “What we do is just offer a different way of hearing this music.” It’s quite an experience.