On paper, last night's program in the Center of Adult Education at the University of Maryland could hardly have been more familiar: Haydn's Symphony No. 103 ("Drum Roll") and Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 ("Eroica"). But it sounded completely fresh and new as interpreted by the Orchestra of the 18th Century with Frans Brueggen conducting.
After the Haydn's first performance in 1795, a London newspaper remarked that "it had continuous strokes of genius, both in air and harmony." The genius -- the constant surprises, the joyful, virtuoso display of wit, the precisely calculated exploration of the many sounds available in an 18th-century orchestra -- has always been perceptible in any decent performance. But last night, its qualities were more evident than usual.
Using gut strings, valveless horns and woodwinds that lack the elaborate sets of keys devised in the 19th century, the orchestra gave a fascinating novelty to familiar music. The drum roll for which the symphony is nicknamed (greatly prolonged last night) seemed to announce that the composer wanted to play with sounds. And he did.
The orchestra's 17 violins had a transparency of sound that allowed all the composer's instrumental tricks to shine through. The three double basses and five cellos provided a remarkably firm, resonant foundation for the sound. The winds had a high profile they seldom get in large, modern orchestras, and the special flavor of archaic instruments made them stand out. The result was more noticeable in the Haydn than the Beethoven, but in both works the music sounded reborn.
Brueggen's interpretations were solid, and the orchestra played extremely well, notwithstanding one bad moment in the horns, occasional bits of imbalance and some choppy phrasing in the third movement of the Beethoven.