Harvard's early music man

So you think you know Bach and Handel? Violinist and baroque music expert Robert Mealy may make you think again. 

By Anita Lo '16 

violinist ROBERT MEALYViolinist Robert Mealy keeps coming back to Harvard: first a student, then a teacher and now to give a master class 4 p.m. Friday, November 20 at Memorial Church. As director of Juilliard Historical Performance, he has also led the Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra in Grammy-nominated performances, taught early music at Yale for more than a decade and, in 2004, won the Early Music Association’s Binkley Award for outstanding teaching and scholarship.

I spoke with Mealy about his experiences playing and teaching early music and how baroque orchestras and music – ostensibly anachronisms, albeit beautiful ones – remain important centuries later. Below is an edited excerpt of our conversation.

How did you get started violin and interested in early music?
I began on modern violin when I was 5, and after that I’d taught myself piano and I got interested in harpsichord. I think my eventual involvement in early music by my high school years had to do with three different things. 

The sheer physical pleasure of these instruments, of playing on gut strings, with a baroque bow. The instruments have much more resonance, they have really beautiful colors, and the sound is much more seamless.

The interpretation. For the first time, I was being forced to really read music, like you read a poem or read a novel. Later music has tons of instruction (dynamics, tempo markings, metronome markings), but in early music, there’s no editorial intervention. It invited the performer to be part of realizing the music rather than asking the performer to execute instructions perfectly. Definitely a draw for a rebellious teenager in the Bay Area.

And lastly, the music itself does so much with so little. It speaks in such vivid ways with just a few notes, with beautiful and heartbreaking gestures.

Were you involved in music at your time as a student at Harvard?
I’d already been performing a lot, and I thought that I might become an academic. I was really interested in thinking about interpretation and how to read things. In fact, doing work with literature made a lot of sense, because I learned to think about how people read what people bring to the process of interpretation, which was hugely helpful in playing early music as well. But after that, I dropped out to “join the circus” – to join Tafelmusik (a leading baroque orchestra ensemble) in Toronto and went on tour with them around Europe. I finally came back and finished my Bachelor’s degree in English before continuing on to do more music.

How did you end up founding the Harvard Baroque Chamber Orchestra?
When I was a student here, I didn’t actually play much early music at Harvard, but I played a lot in Boston with chamber groups and orchestras. That memory led me to found the Baroque Chamber Orchestra when I came back. It was actually a project of Murray Somerville [Gund University Organist and Choirmaster, 1990-2003], who wanted to play a piece by Purcell. But no one really knew how to play Purcell. So he asked me to come in and form this group, which then became a regular orchestra where undergraduates could learn more about Baroque music.

Most student musicians are classically trained, and many don’t have the chance to study early music before college. What is the difference between playing Handel or Bach in an orchestra versus a baroque ensemble? How do you help students grasp that difference?
Having the tools at hand helps them grasp the difference, because we provide them with baroque bows and instruments, and students can usually pretty quickly intuit the difference from how it feels. But a lot of it is talking about the gestures in the music. There’s a huge amount of vivid and theatrical and very dance-like gestures in the music. These very small details add up to tremendous changes in how we hear the music; in a way, it’s like taking local train rather than an express train. And students think they know Baroque, because they know Bach and Handel, but – nothing against Bach and Handel – what they don’t know is that a lot of the music is dance-based. So it’s almost like teaching students how to make the orchestra into a dance band.

What advice do you have for musicians at Harvard?
Explore deeply other ways of thinking about the world, even if your love is for music. It doesn’t put you at a disadvantage at all in the real world – whatever that is. Increasingly now in music education, we’re trying to find ways to persuade audiences that this is really cool music, and it’s worthwhile. I think that’s true of all classical music now, where we’re finding our own new ways of reaching this music, of reaching people with your music. So you need to learn to do that from outside of your perspective. Basically, be smart and think hard.

Robert Mealy will lead a master class presented by Learning From Performers 4 p.m. Friday, November 20 at Memorial Church. This project is supported by the Bernard H. and Mildred Kayden Artist in Residence Fund. He will also perform as a guest artist with the Harvard Baroque Chamber Orchestra 20th Anniversary Celebration Concert 7 p.m. Sunday, November 22 at Memorial Church. Admission for both events is free and open to the public.