Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin comes to the 'U'

By Cosmo Pappas, Daily Arts Writer
Published April 10, 2014

The names Mozart and Bach evoke many thoughts — maybe those of harmony, maybe lavish Viennese court recitals or maybe the hopes of upper-class parents that playing Mozart in the cradle will get their kid into Harvard. Most likely, the average person does not think of an ensemble like the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin as a “courageous display of musical sovereignty against the East German socialist regime,” as several performing arts organizations have put it. Coincidentally, neither would the ensemble, which will bring a program of those composers to the Hill Auditorium this weekend through the University Musical Society.

Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin

13 April 2014, 4:00
Hill Auditorium
from $7 (with student discount) to $70

“It’s never really been like that. It’s not that we’ve always been making music out of protest against a certain system,” said Felix Hilse, the group’s manager of six years and the son of a founding member. “It’s always has been a very unpolitical thing.”

The group’s core membership counts 32 musicians but will range from 7 to 55 depending on the demands of the specific repertoire. Their award-winning recorded output, released by independent French label Harmonia Mundi, features performances of such composers as W.A. Mozart, Bach (J.S., J.C., C.P.E., W.F. – the father and his sons), Antonio Vivaldi, G.F. Handel and others.

The Akamus (the popular abbreviation) was exceptional also because they made use of period instruments in order to most faithfully reproduce the music’s historically distant sounds. While “period” ensembles of this kind have subsequently proliferated, the Akamus was a one-of-a-kind enterprise for its original audiences.

Rather than read their foundation and concertizing during the Soviet era as a politically motivated gesture at its base, the Akamus can be seen instead as an attempt to popularize certain forms of music that were simply unavailable for those audiences at the time.

“All of the original members gathered in Berlin. They all had jobs at the local symphony orchestras and actually gathered in order to perform contemporary music,” Hilse said. “It was more or less by coincidence or accident that they got their hands on a collection of historical instruments.”

This intervention by chance, however, made the ensemble what it is today. Becoming a period ensemble, Hilse described, was an exhaustive process of consulting libraries and other historical documents in learning how to meet the demands of the historical instruments, some of them greatly different than their modern counterparts.

“The wall coming down in ’89 was our one big chance to show what has happened behind the Iron Curtain,” Hilse said. “And in many ways we’ve taken this quality of isolation to define ourselves, all the way up through today.”

Keeping in mind Hilse’s explanation of the apolitical status of the ensemble, the group’s experiences before and after the fall of the Soviet Union differ primarily at the level of logistics, organizations and publicity.

But even today, the ensemble functions with a decentralized model that differs from most classical ensembles. As opposed to most symphonic bodies, the Akamus is a collective of freelance musicians, owned by a small number of musicians.

“Of course we want to bring joy to people, everyone wants to do that, and we want to play Baroque music in a certain way,” Hilse said. “But we want to take the audience by their hands and get them out of their seats while we’re playing, not after. There is a certain force that we can create that I think is quite unique.”

Come next Sunday, then, Ann Arbor will have the opportunity to see the Akamus’s virtuosic and invigorating vision of Baroque and Classical music. It is important that the Akamus is not seeking only specialized audiences. Their variety of live performance is one that can educate anyone, expert or not, on the dynamism of Mozart and Bach in such a way that makes age-old stereotypes about these kinds of music defunct.