Historical and HIP

Mallarmé to premiere Jaffe’s composition Sunday
Jan. 31, 2014 @ 04:44 PM

Duke University music professor and composer Stephen Jaffe told an audience in Bone Hall that he often walks by the display of historical instruments in the music building’s lobby area. He often wondered about possibly writing a piece for those instruments.

“When Mallarmé [Chamber Players] asked me to write a piece, I thought that it would be very interesting,” Jaffe said Friday during an open, public rehearsal of his new “HIP Concerto” that he wrote for Mallarmé. The group will perform Jaffe’s piece along with  Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 Sunday as part of the HIP Music Festival.

For the festival, Mallarmé  commissionted Jaffe to write a contemporary work for period instruments. The “HIP Concerto” is based on the same instrumentation as the Brandenburg No. 2.

This is the second year for the HIP Music Festival, an acronym for Historically Informed Performance. The festival is dedicated to Renaissance and baroque music, played on instruments made like those the musicians of the period would have played. The performances also feature the practices of the musicians of the period.

As examples, bass player Robbie Link will be playing a violone, a bass-like instrument he built. John Thiessen will play a baroque trumpet, which resembles a modern trombone in appearance. Playing this historic brass instrument is tough on the lip, Thiessen told the audience, and he compared playing it with the Bach piece to “an extreme sport.” Other members of the ensemble also are playing instruments typical of early Western music.

The ensemble played through one movement of the Brandenburg, followed by several movements of Jaffe’s composition. They worked out some sections, and opened the floor for questions. “What you’re seeing is the process of a piece being made,” Jaffe said. He is “most excited about the kinds of articulations these instruments are capable of, and I wanted to take advantage of them,” he said.

One audience member asked the group to talk about how they achieve balance in sound playing historical instruments. Geoffrey Burgess, who plays baroque oboe, compared the process to a dialogue. The musicians “need to be able to hear the dominant part” and fit in dynamically. He compared playing the pieces to “trying to be one entity but in different characters.” He added that it was a pleasure to play the Bach with a trumpeter who could play a historical trumpet. “It’s such a pleasure because we’re making chamber music,” he said.

Jaffe has written music for various ensembles. The National Symphony Orchestra premiered his “Concerto for Cello and Orchestra,” and the Odense Symphony of Denmark premiered his “Concerto for Violin and Orchestra.” His extensive list of works includes two compositions for the North Carolina Symphony: “Poetry of the Piedmont” and “Cithara mea (Evocations): Spanish Music Notebook for Orchestra.”

At Duke, he is one of the directors of the ongoing new music series “Encounters: With the Music of Our Time.”

Jaffe praised the performers at the rehearsal as some of the “most wonderful exponents” playing music on early instruments. “It’s hard for us to imagine the excitement of the musicians who received the first Brandenburg,” Jaffe said. The Brandenburgs have survived, and have been played through the centuries on different kinds of instruments. Jaffe said he hopes his “HIP Concerto” is adapted for different instruments in future ages.

The HIP Music Festival continues with performances through Friday.