Rachell Ellen Wong & Mahan Esfahani Join MSO for Bach Fest

David Lewellen

Tagged Under: 2023.24 Season, Around Town, Guest Artist

Independently and unprompted, both soloists for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s upcoming Bach festival marvel at the new things they keep finding in the Baroque master’s work.

Violinist Rachell Ellen Wong and harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani will perform on both programs and will lead the works they perform in. And in separate interviews, they both brought up the depth and complexity of the music.

When Wong performs Bach’s two best-known violin concertos, in E major and A minor, she said, “You have to focus on every voice and how they’re weaving in and out. The music is so rich for me, and so hard. Even if I’ve played it 100 times, I’ll be like, ‘Oh, this is new.’”

Esfahani, who will perform Bach’s harpsichord concerto in A major and the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, said, “Life is too short for music that doesn’t demand much. Bach understood the harpsichord better than I do, and he’s pushing me to expand my expressive boundaries. There’s this myth that Bach wasn’t an innovator — of course he was. Daily, when I practice Bach, I discover new things, and I think, ‘What was I thinking last week?’ It’s truly the gift that keeps on giving.”

The Iranian-born, American-raised harpsichordist has commissioned more than a dozen new works for the instrument, and he seeks out composers who are “almost ahead of what we can do as musicians, even working against our instruments.” But, he quickly added, he finds that quality in Baroque composers, too. “People play Bach the way they see themselves as musicians,” he said, and as musicians grow and change, so do their interpretations.

Wong, too, is comfortable both with early music and modern repertoire. She discovered the Baroque period almost by accident in graduate school (it was a way to get out of a requirement), but “I found out that it was something I really loved,” she said.

Three weeks before her Milwaukee concerts, Wong still hadn’t decided whether she would perform on a modern violin or a Baroque instrument — or, as a compromise, put gut strings on her modern instrument. (Violin strings today are made of a synthetic core, with a metal coating.)

Using strings made from animal intestines (yes) offers “so many more different sounds and more color, like a voice,” Wong said. But they wear out or break much sooner. For Wong, a gut E string, the highest and thinnest one, lasts a maximum of two weeks.

Baroque string instruments also use a differently shaped bow, and there is no chin rest on the violin, which “frees up my playing. It feels like a part of my body instead of a tool.”

Original tuning would be a whole other can of worms. The standard for a modern orchestra is that the A in the treble clef staff is 440 vibrations per second, and over the last few decades, early-music tuning has settled on 415, about a half-step lower. But Wong said that in the 1600s and 1700s, pitches were both much higher and much lower, depending on the period and the city.

Esfahani said flatly, “There are no conclusions to come to. There was no single early music style.” In fact, he avoids playing with early music groups because he believes their view is too narrow. “I like playing with modern orchestras,” he said. “When there’s an interpretive question, the answer is always, ‘Let’s try that.’”

Wong does most of her Baroque playing in small groups that work without a conductor, but she said, “I love to collaborate with anyone.” When she plays with an orchestra like the MSO that uses modern instruments, she is excited to share some basics of Baroque technique. Although the historically informed performance movement has been around for two or three generations now, Wong said that many orchestra musicians still haven’t had much experience with it but are eager to learn more. “It can seem super easy on the page, but it’s the opposite,” she said. “If there are four repeated notes in a row, they all need to sound different.”

Esfahani, who is based in Prague, takes his own harpsichord to concerts in Europe. For Milwaukee, he corresponded with symphony personnel a year in advance about the specifications of the MSO’s harpsichord. “Modern instruments are in tune, so I look forward to that,” he said, deadpan.