The period orchestra


Last night we went to an outstanding concert by the J. S. Bach Foundation based in St Gallen, conducted by Rudolf Lutz. The concert was held in the Evangelical Reformed Church which architecturally is vastly different from all other churches we have visited so far. For example, the front of the church has two main elements: the organ and underneath it, a window with a drapery behind it where the preacher comes out.

According to Vreni Griffith, I previously (and unknowingly) posted a video of the J. S. Bach Foundation on this blog (check out my post, “Bach to the familiar”) and she got all excited because many of them are based in Basel, Switzerland.

The program stated that “the J. S. Bach Foundation, established in 1999 on the initiative of Dr. Konrad Hummler, has set itself the goal of giving a new lease on life to Bach’s sacred cantatas, performances of which are difficult to realize today whether in church serices or as part of concert programs, by offering performances of the highest possible quality based on an innovative concept. This concept, which has been put into practice since 2006, consists basically of presenting just one Bach cantata once a month, but twice in the same evening, with a prior introduction to the music and the theology behind it and, between the two performances, reflections on the cantata text, for which different, well-known public figures are invited each time. Behind these efforts is the desire to give people a chance to experience the musical and spiritual richness and the complex beauty of Bach’s cantatas by means of a carefully commented, repeated performance.”

Anyway, here we were privileged to hear them in the flesh, and I was not disappointed in the least. I wanted to share some period orchestra idiosyncrasies that you might not be aware of, starting with the tuning.

When the instruments are tuned, they don’t do it all at once as in American orchestras. For example, first the cellos are tuned. So we hear the organ play an “A”, and they all tune their As. Then the organist plays a “D”, and all cellos tune their Ds and so forth. After the cellos are tuned then the basses are next, one string at a time. Next we hear the violins, then the violas, then finally the winds. This procedure does take a little more time, but the effort is well worth it. I think the reason they do this is because they use historic temperaments and gut strings.

During the concert, all the instrumentalists stand when performing except for the basso continuo (bass and keyboard instruments). That includes all the violins, violas and wind instruments. These players then put a lot of “body English” into their performance, with a lot of movement.

The standard of performance during this concert was extremely high, and I especially enjoyed the bass soloist, Dominik Wörner. I also enjoyed watching the conductor with his highly evocative and expressive gestures.


The group did not repeat the Bach Cantata 7, “Christ unser Herr, zum Jordan kam,” at the end of their program as they usually do for their performances, but ended with an absolutely delightful “Christus, der is mein Leben” by Johann Schelle (1648-1701). Carl said he had purchased this music for the LCH choir but never got a chance to perform it because of orchestra schedules.

About Katherine Crosier

In addition to playing the organ I am interested in documenting life's special moments through journaling, scrapbooking, photography and slideshow production. My family just groans.
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  1. Pingback: Organ connections | Another Year of Insanity

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