Did Mozart write music for the instruments of today?

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The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is one of the top ‘period instrument’ orchestras in the world.

Named after the period of European history spanning the late 17th to early 19th centuries, the stated ambition of the Orchestra, now universally known as the OAE, is to play classical music in a historically accurate manner – ‘as it was intended to be heard’.

What is a ‘period instrument’ orchestra? As music moved out of the drawing rooms of the European aristocracy and into larger concert halls, the instruments themselves changed. Gradually, through the 18th and 19th centuries, more muscular instruments – thought to be better at conveying, say, the power and drama of Beethoven’s piano compositions to large audiences in large spaces than a harpsichord – began to be developed.

Even the techniques of how to play changed. But does the playing of specially-refined and constructed instruments really improve the actual sound of the music? It’s obviously a matter of taste. Founded in 1986, the OAE strives for a simpler, less polished and elaborate performance than a contemporary concert orchestra and aims to deliver to its audiences something approaching the original unembellished sound and experience intended by, say, Mozart or Handel.

Player-led approach

The OAE chooses not to have a permanent music director, and much of the leadership has come from within, maintaining an admirably democratic, player-led approach to artistic planning and programming. As you’d expect from what is, essentially, a movement of musical revival and protection, the Orchestra’s players are passionately committed and are famed for their sheer enthusiasm for music (a fact that’s all too evident in their performance).

And with that commitment has come acclaim. In 1992, the OAE’s standing in the upper echelons of British music was confirmed when it was invited to become ‘associate orchestra’ at the South Bank Centre; last year, the orchestra moved to a new purpose-built base at Kings Place, near Kings Cross.

Forefront of musical achievement

In the last few years, the OAE has come to stand at the very forefront of British musical achievement. As a result, they are now in demand all over the world, giving around 100 performances a year under famed conductors such as Vladimir Jurowski, Sir Charles Mackerras, and Sir Simon Rattle, both throughout the UK and internationally.

In 2001, Sir Simon Rattle conducted the OAE in the first production of Fidelio ever performed at the Glyndebourne Festival with a period-instrument orchestra. It was a watershed moment for the Orchestra, and confirmed the public appetite for classical music as it was intended to be played.

A sound investment

While stocks and property markets rise and fall, the market for rare musical instruments continues to grow.

The Stradivari Society – a private Chicago-based organisation which encourages philanthropists to acquire fine instruments and bows in order to loan them to promising young musicians – states that the value of Stradivari and Guarneri violins has tripled since 1990.

Society founders Robert Bein and Geoffrey Fushi preside over a collection which includes Stradivari’s 1699 violin, ‘Lady Tennant’, which was sold at Sotheby’s in 2005 for US$2 million.

“As institutions and museums hold an increasing percentage of the great violins, the competition intensifies for the remaining instruments when they do become available, and the continued increases in violin prices of the current decade dramatically reflect this fact,” say Bein and Fushi.

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