While English maestro Harry Bicket occasionally stretches into other eras, he’s content with his specialized focus of Baroque and contemporary works. “I tend to miss out on the 19th century,” he said. “It’s not that I don’t love the 19th century, but I think there are people who do it better than me. I think conductors should do [what] they’re best at. I’m not a big proponent of the idea that one should be Superman and sort of fly in and do everything.”
Since 2007, Bicket has served as artistic director of the renowned English Concert, a London-based period-instrument ensemble founded in 1973. “It’s gone very quickly,” said the conductor, who will lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in works by Bach, Rameau and Poulenc for three concerts beginning April 30. “I can’t quite believe it’s been that many years, but it’s true.”
Unlike the early years of the ensemble, when founder Trevor Pinnock and its members were helping to blaze a trail for the nascent, and in some circles, controversial period-music movement, the English Concert is now a well-established institution. “Now, we’ve got a whole third, fourth generation of players who are people who grew up wanting to play the baroque violin or baroque cello,” Bicket said. “Of course, when you learn the instrument, you learn a technique that is same for everybody. But in terms of bows and instruments, sensibility and approach to the music, there is a whole crowd of young people — this is what they want to do. So we have a very different culture. There’s no longer the pioneering spirit that used to be there.”
At the same time, Bicket said the English Concert, like many other period-instrument groups, is not as “dogmatic” and uncompromising as it used to be. “The early days,” he said, “tended to be slightly extreme: ‘We’re not going to do any ornamentation, and we’re not going to do any expression, and we won’t do anything that is not actually written in the score.’ Which, of course, was sort of necessary, because there were a lot of barnacles that had grown up over the years that probably needed to be scraped off the bottom. On one hand, those performances are kind of fascinating, but they are also sometimes strangely unemotional. Now that we’re not being judged in the same way, it’s possible to play these instruments and be expressive. There’s no doubt that’s what was intended originally.”
Complementing his work with that ensemble, he also serves as chief conductor of the Santa Fe (N.M.) Opera, an internationally recognized summer company that performs in an amphitheater poised on a plateau in the desert Southwest. Leaders there approached him about the position after several successful guest engagements with the opera beginning with a production of Handel’s Agrippina in 2004. He was reluctant at first; since his duties with the English Concert fall mainly between September and May, he decided he could squeeze in time in Santa Fe.
“I thought about it,” he said, “and I talked to the orchestra here about it and also my wife. We had a small child and now two small children. So in many ways, it was not a very logical step for me, but in many ways, it was, because it is a place that I love. It’s an orchestra I love. There is an ethos about the place, which I really admire — the way they really curate pieces with such care in a way that any repertoire houses, even the best one in the world, can’t really do, because there is an element of a factory about them. If you really want to rehearse a piece well and get under its skin and have a wonderful experience on it, then Santa Fe is a good place to do it. So I was very happy when they said, ‘Let’s try and make it work.’”
CSO audiences will get a taste of the operatic side of Bicket when he opens his program with the Dance Suite from Rameau’s Platée, a delightful mythological take-off that the celebrated French Baroque composer called a “comédie-ballet.” “All the entr’actes are dances,” Bicket said, “and in them is some of the best music he wrote in the piece. I find modern orchestras enjoy Rameau because it’s technically quite challenging. It’s difficult stuff to play, and it’s also wild. It’s quite modern in a way.”
Next comes Poulenc’s rarely heard Concert champêtre (Pastoral Concerto). The 25-minute work was written in 1927-28 for Wanda Landowska, who premiered it with conductor Pierre Monteux and the Orchestre Symphonique de Paris in May 1929.
“The Concert champêtre is a very backward-looking piece in a way,” Bicket said. “It takes on so much French music, including Rameau, because that was the great precursor, really. It’s Rameau’s dance music and his fantasy and the kind of fragmented structure of a lot of his pieces, and I think Poulenc knew the Rameau stuff and he does a kind of pasticcio on it.”
The second half of the concert is devoted to music by J.S. Bach, starting with Four Preludes and Fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier, in a little-known transcription for orchestra by Igor Stravinsky. “This is not some Stravinsky reinvention of Bach,” Bicket said. “They are orchestrations. There are a few kind of funky things he does with it, but I think they are quite respectful of the keyboard nature of the pieces. He doesn’t recompose anything particularly.” Rounding out the program is Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3, the most familiar of the four selections.
Like his earlier engagements with the CSO, Bicket will try to bring as many elements of his period approach to this program as his rehearsal time will permit. “Of course, the orchestra is incredible,” he said. “They come super-prepared and they can play anything on the page perfectly the first time, but of course, with a lot of the rep that I do, actually what is written on the page is just a sketch. In 18th-century music, the scores were just sort of a rough guide, and there was so much in terms of articulation, dynamics and rhythm, which was just a given because people played in a certain style.”
For example, if a modern orchestra comes to a string of eighth notes in a score by Rameau, they will play them evenly with the same articulation. But if a French orchestra in the 18th century encountered those same eighth notes, they would know how to “swing” them, as Bicket puts it, or play them each with a slightly different emphasis. “So, even though the notes say one thing,” he said, “actually the spirit of it is different, and that’s something that modern orchestra players don’t often get because they are used to having material in front of them that tells them exactly how you should do it.”
With that in mind, he will urge the Chicago Symphony players to not be afraid to take certain liberties with the music — “to bring something of themselves, to bring their own imaginations and to liberate them in a way to feel like they’re allowed to be expressive in the own right.”
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts writer.