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Concert preview: Maestro Thomas Crawford to lead ACO in season’s final concert

Maestro Thomas Crawford (seated at the keyboard) helms the period instrument ensemble American Classical Orchestra
Maestro Thomas Crawford (seated at the keyboard) helms the period instrument ensemble American Classical Orchestra
Photo courtesy of American Classical Orchestra

Maestro Thomas Crawford 30 years ago founded the ensemble known today as American Classical Orchestra (ACO). On Thursday, June 5, he will direct its final concert of the current season at Alice Tully Hall. Maestro Crawford spoke by phone to Monday, May 19, while preparing for the concert. Among other things, he provided helpful tips for concert-goers on how to enjoy a performance on period instruments if they’re accustomed only to the sound of modern instruments.

How do performances differ whether played on modern or on period instruments? “The differences for me are profound,” says the maestro. “They’ve been profound since the very first measure of the very first rehearsal of the period group in 1984.”

The June 5 program contains four works premiered in or inspired by Prague. A native of Prague, Czech composer Josef Mysliveček’s “Sinfonia in D” opens the program, followed by Johann Strauss’ “Sounds of Moldavia” Waltz and Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Piano Concerto No. 1,” which premiered in Prague with Beethoven as soloist. In this case, Bart van Oort, will be at the keyboard of a fortepiano replica of the one Beethoven played. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Symphony No. 38,” subtitled “Prague,” comprises the concert’s second half.

How does one obtain a fortepiano these days for concerts? “A dozen or so fortepianos are available for rental in New York City. Some are restored originals, but most are replicas by modern makers. The one we’ll be using is a replica of a fortepiano built by Anton Walther (1752-1826). It was made in Flanders and acquired by a Bostonian pianist. That pianist will bring the fortepiano with him for five days of care and feeding during the time that we’ll be using it for our June 5 concert.”

Since the sound of a concert grand and that of a fortepiano are quite different, what does the maestro particularly like about it? “Composers for the fortepiano knew very well that its three registers practically sound like three distinct instruments. The lower register has a percussive quality with it’s [imitating] tak-tak-tak-tak-tak—very exciting, very raucous, almost like a machine gun. The middle register blends well with the orchestra and can sound almost like an organ. The upper register is light and delicate and sounds wispy, very much like a harp.

“Mozart, Haydn and others exploited these characteristics in their works for fortepiano, never placing, for example, a sforzando—a sudden, forceful note or chord—in the upper register, but only in the lower register.”

How do concert-goers adjust their ears to the rinky-dink quality of the fortepiano? “If you listen, not so much to the fortepiano’s sound as to these textures, you will enjoy the performance without missing the sound of a modern concert grand. The modern piano is strictly a solo instrument, standing out from the orchestra right from the start and playing the principle role. The fortepiano’s sound is much softer and blends well with the other instruments. If you come to our concert hoping to hear a concert grand’s homogeneous sound, you’re going to be disappointed.”

Have you conducted these works before? “I have only performed Mozart’s ‘Prague’ Symphony on modern instruments. It’s one of the most difficult works for an orchestra to play. Now with ACO’s performance on period instruments, it’s been like having to learn the piece all over again.”

If Thomas Crawford’s handling of Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss and Mysliveček is at all similar to his way with Händel—heard at the ACO’s March 19 concert—the audience is sure to be fascinated with the gorgeous sounds coming from the stage.

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