Handel & Haydn Society play Mozart and Haydn this weekend
Walk into most music shops and the violins hanging on the wall will be strung with steel strings. The highest string on the violin (the E) is particularly prone to sounding metallic when improperly played (think horror-film screech.) Back in Mozart’s day, though, violin strings were made not from metal, but from a material commonly known as ‘catgut.’ Exactly what it sounds like, ‘catgut’ is made from the intestines of sheep and other animals. A Mozart concerto performed on a violin today sounds different from what Mozart and his audiences would have heard— we don’t hear the same tones or dynamics that instruments of the 18th century produced. The musicians of Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society are trying to bring back those earlier tones, according to concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky. “We literally play instruments from the 18th century with the kind of strings that Mozart would have heard,” Nosky said.
Conducted by Harry Christophers, Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society will play works by Mozart and Haydn in a program featuring Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 and Haydn’s Symphony No. 99 and Mass in B-Flat Major this weekend.
DigBoston talked to Nosky about the upcoming performance, the historical research that goes into an H&H production, and Mozart’s own violin practice.
JK: What are you looking forward to about the upcoming performance?
AN: We are playing Mozart this weekend and Mozart really seems to speak to people from all walks of life. He seems to be able to move both ‘music people’ and also those listeners who aren’t that familiar with the classical music world. Audience members tend to feel very passionately about him. He has a sort of magic to get people to sit up and listen.
JK: What makes Mozart so special?
AN: Well, I’m very excited to play one of his violin concertos this weekend because it was written by Mozart for Mozart. I think that, in part, is what’s so great about Mozart— he was a musician, too, not just a composer. He used this concerto as a vehicle to show off his musical skill. He wanted to put himself forward to say “Hey, I’m ready for a job!” There’s no question— Mozart played these concertos and he played them well.
JK: Earlier you mentioned “music people.” How does the Handel & Haydn Society try to bridge that gap between “music people” and everyday listeners?
AN: At the Handel & Haydn Society, we play all of the music as though it were written yesterday by a contemporary composer. We want to make it relevant to listeners today.
JK: How do you play something as if it were written yesterday?
AN: For one, we play the instruments that Mozart would have known and been writing for. At H&H we delve into a lot of historical research for each performance. We research ways that Mozart would have heard instruments from the 18th century. We think about what kind of violin earlier musicians would have played. What are the strings? What is the bow like? So we actually play 18th century instruments— every instrument in our ensemble is either from the 18th century or built as a replica with the same sound. They have a very different tone to them and it colors the entire piece. It’s not better or worse, just completely different.