Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Hogwood sees his future in music's past

HE was no great shakes on the ivories as a kid, but look at him now. With silver touch he makes keyboards talk on harpsichord, clavichord, virginal, fortepiano, spinet, and organ. And Christopher Hogwood is even better known as a conductor. In less than 15 years, the British-born musician/musicologist has risen from ``who's he?'' status to become a celebrity among classical music lovers the world over. Not all agree with his approach, but they certainly know who he is.

Mr. Hogwood has made his way onto symphony stages from Paris to Los Angeles by a different door. Not a back door, but a different one. As director of London's Academy of Ancient Music, he and his musicians are in the forefront of the groups presenting baroque and classical repertoire in historic style, rendered on original (or replicated) instruments of the appropriate period. In short, they bring the musical past to the present.

About these ads

Hogwood took time out to talk about his work during a Monitor interview shortly after a nine-hour flight from London. He and the Academy are on a four-city United States tour that brought them here to Chicago earlier this week, then took them to Pasadena, Calif. They will wind up with performances in Boston tomorrow, and in New York on Saturday.

In Chicago, 28 of the Academy members presented a classical program of Schubert, Haydn, and Mozart. The program won a rousing reception from a full house, with Hogwood called back for six bows. On balance, the critics liked him, too. The Sun Times chided Hogwood for performing the earliest version of Mozart's Symphony 40, which excludes clarinets, but said ``this was probably the most completely convincing'' of Hogwood's visits to date. Meanwhile, the Tribune said, ``Authenticity - as Hogwood triumphantly proved - greatly expands rather than narrows the aesthetic options available to performers and listeners.''

Hogwood, personable, charismatic - and sharp - knows how to market his product. He may not have enough of Madison Avenue in him to sell purple toothpaste, but he definitely knows how to take the recondite commodity of music on original instruments, infuse it with vitality, and march to stardom.

If Hogwood was wrestling with jet lag on his arrival, it didn't show. Dinner-less and still clad in the casuals of travel - bulky sweater, cords, and red socks - Hogwood leaned on a hotel table, portraying ease rather than fatigue.

So what's different about a performance with historic instruments?

``That's like asking a fine chef to describe the difference between one recipe and a slightly varied version. The changes are quite subtle,'' he says. For one thing, the violins have gut strings, imparting a more mellow sound than their modern counterparts with metal strings. ``The woodwinds are in their less mechanized state, with fewer keys on the oboes, flutes, and bassoons,'' he says. These give a somewhat ``softer'' tone than today's woodwinds.

``We always try to match each composer's work with the orchestra he intended. If you take Handel's orchestra, he tended to have one oboe for every three violins,'' Hogwood explains. Mozart: usually eight first violins to one first oboe. The modern symphony may have 20 first violins to one first oboe. The smaller historic orchestra with its different string-wind ratio results in less sonorous sounds. To some, it's like seeing Van Gogh's ``Starry Night'' in sepia, the vibrancy vanished.

About these ads

Not so, insists Hogwood, who says he hears an enhanced richness. ``In the 18th-century orchestra, the sounds are more individual unto themselves because there's not the attempt to homogenize them ... as in the 20th-century orchestra'' - rather like being conscious of the separate dots in a Seurat or the single pearls in a strand. The whole is there, but you're aware of the parts.

The Academy's recordings are consistent best-sellers. A recent achievement for the group was recording all of Mozart's symphonies. To Hogwood, the Mozart renditions served a pedagogical purpose; they peeled away practices that have crept into performances for nearly 200 years - accoutrements, never written on the early scores, that eventually dressed Mozart's classical-period music in the romantic-period sounds that came later. ``You can't say our [sound] is what Mozart heard. We can say, though, that we've cut out a lot of things we know he didn't hear,'' Hogwood says.

After years of work by such authentic-instrument pioneers as Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Neville Marriner's Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, and others, today's listeners readily accept historic performances of music from the baroque and classical periods. But now the Academy of Ancient Music is edging into the Romantic period and raising eyebrows at the same time: What? Hogwood and his handful doing Beethoven with less than a 100-piece orchestra? Tantamount to a storm without thunder, love without an embrace, say some.

But Hogwood asks, why not? The Academy has already recorded the first five of Beethoven's symphonies, and the First, Second, and Third are now on music store shelves. They plan to go all the way, including the Ninth.

``You have two ways of approaching this composer,'' says Hogwood. ``One is to go along with what Beethoven does. When he adds, you add. The other way is to say, `If he had had more, he would have added more.''' And this is what many modern [symphony orchestras] do, Hogwood maintains, creating grandiose sounds that weren't heard in Beethoven's time. ``I am very suspicious of adding on top of what he adds just because they're mighty symphonies. One should increase with him but not overtake him,'' Hogwood says. His musicology background surfaces when he says, ``It's not that one doesn't think he would have added more. The point is - he didn't.'' Period.

``I happen to be convinced that Beethoven's recipe is best for me. But there will be a lot of people who say [Sir Georg] Solti's recipe of Beethoven is best for them. They want the modern version,'' he says.

And that's fine with Hogwood, who says there are ears enough for both approaches.

Added to Hogwood's Academy activities are his guest appearances with major orchestras.

He's also the new artistic director for Boston's 172-year-old Handel & Haydn Society, the oldest performing-arts organization in the US.

For three months after the Academy tour, he will be conducting stateside with the National Symphony in Washington, the San Francisco Symphony, the Handel & Haydn Society, and the Chicago Symphony.

For such an auspicious musical career, Hogwood got off to a rocky start. At age eight, he took piano lessons and found them ``very boring.'' So he quit. ``I started again in my teens because I wanted to. Then one romps ahead very fast,'' he says.

While at Cambridge University, he dropped his study of literary classics to switch to music.

``At the time,'' he says, ``the university had a lot of lively musicmaking as well as theoretical music,'' an appealing partnership of the performing and the academic. Hogwood had found his lifetime niche. Not only did he learn to relish 18th-century music, but he preferred it to medieval and Renaissance because ``you have much more scholarly evidence of what's accurate - if you want to be scientific about it.'' And he does.

In 1973, Hogwood founded the Academy of Ancient Music, which took its name from an 18th-century group. And today Hogwood resides in Cambridge in a house that's packed with books, clavichords, and harpsichords (no TV), and is edged with an English garden that he never has time to tend.

When asked if he had calculated a short-cut to the big-time podiums via the ``historic approach,'' he answers with a low-keyed ``no.'' And his answer sounds solid. After all, within Hogwood there's a marriage of musicology and performance. What other path could he take?

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.