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Battle of the bands ... er, orchestras

Period and modern sounds come together at England's premier summer festival.

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It all began as a battle. The "authentic" or "original instruments" movement, as it was called in the 1970s and 80s, claimed modern orchestras did not produce the sounds composers such as Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven would have known.

Advancing technology in the 19th century had made all instruments more powerful and accurate. But modern instruments just didn't sound right to authenticists such as Christopher Hogwood, who set up his Academy of Ancient Music to play on instruments with the designs and sounds of earlier times. The movement was at first obsessed with following exact markings on musical scores and banishing the rich modern orchestral sounds thought out of place. Critics responded by lambasting what they saw as a clinical approach to musicmaking, and characterized the sounds as "vinegary" or "astringent."

The two sides are finally coming together in a spirit of cooperation, however, at England's premier summer opera festival. The Glyndebourne Festival gives modern listeners an opportunity to judge for themselves. There, the period Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) shares musical duties with the modern-instruments London Philharmonic. Each orchestra is assigned a number of the six productions to perform each season.

John Christie, a wealthy country-estate owner, opened the first opera season at Glyndebourne in 1934. Mr. Christie sought complete evenings of grace and beauty, and so the tradition arose of formal dinner dress for the audience, who would enjoy picnics on the lawns during extended performance intermissions. Glyndebourne, with a tuxedo dress code and most tickets priced at $210, still calls up the image of a jewel-bedecked dowager. But in using both period and modern orchestras, the festival is pursuing one of the most innovative experiments in today's world of opera.


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