Since she was appointed concertmaster of the Handel and Haydn Society in 2011, Aisslinn Nosky has become one of the most recognizable artists in the Boston music scene.
Her youthful, spirited presence on stage (not to mention her trademark red-flame hair and her oft-worn Baroque-style jackets) gives the orchestra an unmistakable flair, something that is palpably missing from so many classical music organizations.
On April 8 and 10, Nosky will not only play violin but will lead the orchestra through performances of Mozart’s Violin Sonata in B-flat Major, Beethoven’s String Trio, and Beethoven’s historic Septet in E-flat Major.
I spoke to Nosky about her role as concertmaster, performing historically significant music, and the edginess of Baroque music.
As concertmaster, how much of a say do you have in the pieces that you perform throughout the season?
With the programs that I’m acting as a director, where we don’t have a conductor and I am tasked to oversee the performance, I do have a say in what music we pick to play. And there’s so much music that I’m eager to learn and experience that I never have a lack of ideas, it’s always just how to put them in play, you know? This particular concert, Mozart and Beethoven, I had the idea of programing the Beethoven Septet in the back of my mind for years—since I joined the organization five years ago—because it’s a famous work that’s beautiful and one that I’ve not really had a chance to explore personally. I thought it would be a perfect vehicle to showcase really strong wind players and string players at the same time. For the bigger choral works and the bigger concerts that are directed by Harry Christophers, that’s his arena to make the decisions of repertoire.
I’ve always wondered how it all comes together.
Yeah, well, Harry has so many strengths as a leader. One of the ones that I benefit from the most is that he’s very collaborative. He’s in control, but he will ask for opinions and ideas and really listen to them and take them on board. His natural specialty is singing and choral music, so while he’s extremely aware of instrumental music, I think he’s interested in hearing my perspective on the repertoire because I come at it from an instrumentalist’s perspective. I think we complement each other in that way. I love working with him.
I was reading about the history of Beethoven’s Septet. It’s so interesting that it really paved the way for who Beethoven would become.
It really did. It changed everything. Well, not everything, but it changed his career from one level to the next. It was a giant step up for him, the publication of it. There’s no going back.
No, there isn’t. And he was so young.
We all, classical musicians, play Beethoven. We do that. But sometimes I forget to think about where Beethoven came from because the mature Beethoven is so powerful. The Fifth Symphony, and everything after that, just knocks you on your butt because it’s so emotional. It might be easy to think that he was always that Beethoven who could write that Fifth Symphony. When he first moved to Vienna, which was 1792, so he was twenty-something, he was trying to make a name for himself, and I think he felt a lot of pressure because he was actively told that he could possibly inherit the tradition of Mozart, who had passed away. In Vienna, Haydn was the master of composition and the acknowledged superstar, and there was Beethoven working very diligently, studying with Haydn and others trying to learn the trade. He didn’t say this, but I sense that he probably felt very pressured because people expected a lot of him and his publications were always met with accolades, all of the opuses leading up to the Septet, but with the Septet it was his first smash hit. Overnight, people were making arrangements of the piece for different instruments so they could play it themselves because they loved it so much. And I think with the Septet, he managed to say to people who were wondering if he was going to fulfill that promise, like, “Here I am, I’m good to go!” and then every opus after that he became more and more and more Beethoven in his compositional language. I think he stopped having to prove himself in a certain way.
How much during a performance do you think about the significance of the piece that you’re playing?
Good question. No, I tend not to. I’ve never been asked that before. I think about the significance a lot when I’m preparing for the performance. When I’m in a performance of any kind of music, whether it’s particularly historically significant or not, I’m absolutely trying to be in the moment and free of external considerations other than expressing the notes on the page with my instrument and with my colleagues. And actually, to consider a work important when you’re playing it, to me, can be intimidating and might make me feel physically tense or nervous. When I’m playing music, whatever it is, I’m trying to think that it’s never been played before and here I am with my colleagues creating it for the first time. What would the first audience think? What would the first players think? I’m not taking for granted that it’s familiar. There’s a creation happening.
What violin do you play?
I play a violin that was made in Spain in 1746 by a Spanish maker named Salvador Bofill. It’s very, very rare. In 1746 in Spain, guitars were much more popular in terms of instruments being made. Violins were around and being made, but much less than guitars, so it’s really quite rare to have a violin of high caliber from that era in Barcelona. And there are only a few examples of his work that have survived; I think there are a couple of cellos and a violin. It’s an unusual instrument that way. I’m very, very fortunate to have it.
Can you explain the difference between performing this music on period instruments versus contemporary instruments?
Well, I prefer to perform music on the equipment that the composers may have been familiar with. If at all possible, I try to make those kinds of choices. I tend to make the choices I can to get me as close to what I think Beethoven would’ve looked at when looking at his first violinist in his group. And for me, I make that choice because I consider myself a historian and a detective. When I’m learning music by Beethoven, I’m trying to figure out what he had in mind, what were his intentions with the music, how did he want it to sound. I can’t ask him, so I have to take the clues that he leaves me with the music and in the notation, how he wrote it down, in the context of what was going on in his life. And in using the equipment that Beethoven may have heard himself, to me, is one more tool in my toolkit of trying to understand his aesthetic. It’s not about what I think the music should go like as much as it is about what Beethoven thought. And it’s obviously just a guess on my part. I don’t know and will never know, and maybe that’s a good thing, but I will always wonder, and I keep wondering and keep trying to answer those questions. And to me, that searching is one of the things that makes the music feel so fresh and immediate even thought it was written several hundred years ago.
Does every member of the orchestra also generally use period instruments?
Yes, everybody at the Handel and Haydn Society uses period instruments. In the case of the string family, the majority of us have instruments that were actually made in the 18th century, sometimes the 17th century, and they’ve survived all this way and they’re beautiful, valuable antiques. It’s fairly normal for a violin to be 100-200 years old. But, interestingly, the wind players and the brass players don’t play instruments that were made in the 18th century; they play copies that are made today by the makers still in the business of reproducing these beautiful instruments. The reason they do that is, in the vast majority of cases, the wind and brass instruments would wear out from being played so much. I find it very interesting that we’ve got old-old in the string section and we’ve got new-old in the winds and brass, but they’re all made to specifications from the 18th century. New research is always being done on how the instruments were in the 18th century, because one of the things I find fascinating about working on historical instruments is that there was much less conformity: People were always innovating with instruments, trying to make them look better, to be easier to play, and that sort of stopped happening with classical music probably around before the first World War. That sense of innovation is not as much a part of classical music anymore, maybe with the exception of contemporary new music groups.
Your mention of innovation reminds me of something you once said to the Globe, that there is a real edginess to baroque music. I love that.
Yeah, I think there can be. Baroque music especially, the operas were over the top, everything was just so emotional. It’s almost like people had to express things they couldn’t say in polite society through the art. And, in fact, the term “baroque,” when it was first coined to describe the eras from 1600 to 1760, it was used by writers after the fact to describe what had happened, and it was actually a derogatory term—it was an insult. To call something “baroque,” if you were living in say 1790, was to actually criticize it for being bizarre and overly emotional.
Yeah, it’s interesting how we define these eras. But it’s not like someone woke up in 1750 and said, “Hey guys, we’re in the classical era now, we have to stop being baroque!” These things happen gradually. But to read contemporary writers in the classical era speaking of Handel, they would turn up their noses and say, “It’s so decadent, it’s so bizarre.” Over time I think that we forget those kinds of responses to the art. But to read things like that, it helps me to feel somewhat justified in taking a fairly edgy approach to certain baroque pieces of music.
What is it like to lead and play at the same time? Not everyone can do that!
Well, I don’t know what it’s like to not do that a lot of times [laughs] Someone who’s directing while they’re playing, as I do—for it to be successful it requires a really high level of investment from every other player on stage. Because no matter how much information I try to give my colleagues with my body language and my facial expressions, I do have a violin in my hand, and I am playing it, so there come some times when someone needs me to make a physical gesture to them so that they know when to play, but it might be difficult because I’m playing my own part. Playing violin and directing an orchestra at the same time is a little bit more complex, but it actually was more common to do it that way, unless it was choral music, in the 18th century. Being violin leader is a different role than being a conductor, for sure, and it requires the patience and understanding of all my colleagues that sometimes I can physically help them and sometimes they’re going to need to help themselves. And what ends up happening is that even though I might be the one directing, ultimately everyone becomes a director at some point throughout the concert. It’s a challenge and I really enjoy it. When I’m directing an orchestra, I feel as though I’m attempting to play everybody’s part in my mind all at once. And for sure, I can’t [laughs], but I do try and it’s like I’m experiencing the whole piece from outside the group looking in. It’s really fun.
There’s almost an edginess to that in itself.
I think it can be. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I’m very fortunate to work with exceptional conductors, and they can bring so much to a performance that somebody who’s really playing on an instrument is limited with. But because I specialize in 18th century music, it’s very natural to just have a player be the director. The Maestro tradition really didn’t start until the end of the 19th century. Mendelssohn was one of the first people to purely conduct and be positively regarded for that. So music before Mendelssohn’s time, it’s fine without a separate conductor.
I didn’t know that.
I often wonder if we’re supposed to know how late the conductors came on the scene [laughs]. I don’t propose directing from an instrument instead of having a conductor; I just think that sometimes it can work out really well. And sometimes there’s no question in my mind that I need a conductor: Handel and Haydn is going to be performing Handel’s oratorio Saul, and it is so complex that we need our conductor for that.
MOZART AND BEETHOVEN. 4.8, JORDAN HALL, 30 GAINSBOROUGH ST., BOSTON. 4.10, SANDERS THEATRE, 45 QUINCY ST., CAMBRIDGE. HANDELANDHAYDN.ORG