Bourbon Baroque

Sounds of Another Era: Spotlight on Historical Instruments
Alice Culin-Ellison, Artistic Director, Bourbon Baroque

Bourbon Baroque specializes in historical performance, meaning we use instruments and performance practices current to the time of a particular composer. Gluck is both backward and forward thinking in his compositional approach to Orfeo. He is a transitional composer who straddles both the Baroque and Galant/Classical periods, calling for a wide variety of instruments from both worlds. The use of cornetti (wooden instruments with a trumpet-like mouthpiece), and sackbuts (early trombones) recalls the Renaissance both with instrumentation and style of composition. On the other hand, the horn, whose role is forward looking to the Galant and Classical style, leans toward Mozart. This production utilizes a classical orchestra of violins, violas, cellos, and bass, flute, oboe (oboe da Caccia), along with bassoon, horn, and timpani. Additionally, Gluck calls for a consort of sackbuts and cornetti, with harp and harpsichord. This entire ensemble plays on historical instruments.

These instrumentalists have dedicated their musical careers to chasing the sound and knowledge of historically informed performance. Something about the sound of the instruments and style of playing caught each of us, leading us to spend our professional lives performing in this way. The instruments are only one part of the story. Historical performance involves much more than just the physical tools used to make the music; it’s also how we use those instruments. Articulation, bow strokes, phrasing, and idiomatic passages in a particular style all lend themselves to the overall sound of the orchestra. This is the effect (and affect!) we achieve — to take the listener to a time away from now, to hear sounds not familiar to even the most seasoned classical music fan. The combination of instruments and playing style offers an earthy, resonant, and grounded sound.

This is all in juxtaposition to the visual aspect of the production, which is a much more timeless telling of the story. By tying a historically informed sound on period instruments to this new, visually striking production, our Orfeo collaboration offers an opportunity to consider the history of this opera and how it can still resonate with us personally, politically, humanistically, and emotionally.

Bourbon Baroque performs Handel’s Messiah
Bourbon Baroque performs Handel’s Messiah

Bourbon Baroque performs Handel’s Messiah. Photos by Christine Mueller.