Tuesday, September 23, 2014

“until I fall dead, like all conductors.” - Frans Brüggen RIP

Back when I was a college student at the University of Illinois and Yale (and by back, I mean WAY BACK) one of my heroes was the amazing recorder player Frans Brüggen. In addition to my serious studies I had also picked up the recorder (mostly alto and sop) and it was so relaxing just to learn some little Baroque tunes (God how I loved Marin Mareis' lithe melodies) on it when I had some free time. I wasn't that good or that bad, but I certainly knew what the biggest challenges were to playing the instrument well, so every time I heard Brüggen he absolutely floored me. It wasn't necessarily the virtuosity of a flurry of 16th  notes, but his amazing expressiveness- he always knew how to take a phrase and unwrap its innermost emotions, its nuances, its semiotic meaning which cannot be put into actual words.

A young, very handsome Frans

An older Frans

I am saddened to learn of Brggen's death in late August at the age of 79. He was still performing as conductor of the Orchestra of the 18th Century and had stated a few years earlier that he would keep on making music  “until I fall dead, like all conductors.”  He was always a class act and brought so much joy to the world. RIP, dear Maestro. Here is the NY Times obit:

Frans Brüggen, a Dutch pioneer of the early music movement, a co-founder and conductor of the influential Orchestra of the 18th Century, and a virtuoso recorder player who in his youth became (literally) a poster boy for the instrument, died on Aug. 13 in Amsterdam. He was 79. His death was confirmed by Sieuwert A. Verster, who founded the ensemble with Mr. Brüggen in 1981. Their period instrument orchestra was one of the first ensembles to adopt a historically informed method of performance, in which the lush sound, vibrato-heavy string playing and sometimes ponderous tempos that were then standard were abandoned for a buoyant, leaner sound with less vibrato. 

Unlike other period ensembles, the Orchestra of the 18th Century has not strayed too far from its original focus; it has ventured into Mendelssohn, Schubert and Chopin, but not later romantics like Brahms.Mr. Brüggen had a particular affinity for conducting Beethoven, releasing two recordings of the complete symphonies and leading the “Eroica” Symphony more than 100 times.

Reviewing a 2007 performance of two Schubert symphonies and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 during one of the orchestra’s infrequent appearances in New York, Allan Kozinn wrote in The New York Times that “by keeping the brass choirs in the foreground sounding punchy in the Ninth, he tapped a vein of both novelty and visceral excitement that gave these familiar works a welcome freshness.”

The orchestra (a part-time group that tours several times a year and regularly releases recordings) was founded with an unusually egalitarian pay plan. After expenses, profits are divided equally among musicians and conductor.The orchestra recruits its members through word of mouth and never holds auditions. “We are a bit like the Rolling Stones,” Mr. Verster said in a phone interview, “always the same people.” The orchestra intends to continue to perform with guest conductors, he added. As a guest conductor himself, Mr. Brüggen worked with both Baroque and modern ensembles, including the London-based Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the Amsterdam-based Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra — bringing a period practice aesthetic to his interpretations.

Mr. Brüggen had a rebellious streak and appreciated counterculture movements, both in and out of musical circles. In 1969 he supported what became known as the “Notenkrakers” (“Nutcrackers”) action, in which conservatory students and composers, unhappy with the Concertgebouw Orchestra’s conservative programming and what they saw as its elitism, disrupted a performance in Amsterdam with noisemakers and a megaphone.

Mr. Brüggen, who in 1972 founded an avant-garde recorder trio called Sour Cream, began his career as a recorder soloist and chamber musician. He elevated the instrument to star status with his brilliant, idiosyncratic approach. Some early albums came along with a poster of him, a tousle-haired young virtuoso.

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