Why is Eliana using two different cellos for the NCMF Winter Baroque concert?

Eliana Razzino Yang

The upcoming Winter Baroque concert (BUY TICKETS) features Eliana Razzino Yang performing the musical equivalent of shape-shifting: when playing with the full ensemble (recorder, violin, and harpsichord) she will be in full “period” set up with gut strings and a baroque bow, just as a cello would have been in 1720. However, for the solo Bach suite, she’ll switch cellos to a modern set-up (albeit on a cello from 1810 – I know, that’s a bit confusing). Why is she doing this, and what does it mean when I say “period” instrument? In a previous post (LINK) I wrote:

The term refers to historical performance practice where musicians study centuries-old techniques on how musicians played stylistically way back when, while also retrofitting their instruments to original designs. Starting in the 18 Century, as music moved out of churches and salons into grand concert halls, instruments evolved to became more powerful. Violins were reinforced, metal strings replaced sheep gut (yes, and eyech….), creating a more brilliant sound, and the shape of the violin bow changed drastically allowing for an emphasis on power and dazzling new virtuosic techniques.

Let’s get more specific, with cello bows as an example.

Modern cello bow

Baroque cello bow

The contrast is pretty extreme: one concave, one convex. Furthermore, the tip on a modern bow is chiseled; a baroque bow ends in a sharp point. Such differences have an enormous effect on how the bow sounds, what you can do, and what you would want to do with it. It is designed for sustained power, the type needed to fill a large concert hall. Modern bows also enable fancy techniques with names like “flying spicatto,” “jeté,” and “sautillé.” You don’t want to play Shostakovich or Tchaikovsky on a baroque bow; some music you literally cannot play on a baroque bow.

Anton Domenico Gabbiana (1652 - 1726): "The Concert”

But just because a modern bow does much that a baroque bow can’t doesn’t mean it always has the upper hand. After all, baroque music was written by Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi for an instrument with a very specific quality in mind, a lean and shimmery sound born in churches and with a few tricks of its own.

Imagine a 1968 and 2019 Volkswagen Beetle side-by-side (2019 was the last year before VW discontinued the model). The ’68 bug has a 4-speed manual gearbox, top speed 62 mph, 1,700 lbs. curb weight, no power steering, 0 – 60 in a lumbering 21.9 seconds, and you’ll feel every pothole in your teeth. The 2019 has a top speed of 120 mph - literally twice as fast, clocks in at 3,000 lbs., has a full electronic suite including built-in GPS and modern suspension, and does 0 – 60 in 7.9 seconds.

'68 Bug vs. '19 Beetle

Yet, despite all the bells and whistles in a 2019, there are fierce advocates for the ’68. Like a modern vs. baroque bow, speed and power doesn’t tell the whole story.

Listen to two versions of Bach’s Brandenberg Concerto No. 3 with a modern vs. period ensemble. Which one do you prefer?

Johann Sebastian Bach: Brandenberg No. 3 in G Major, BWV 1048
John Elliot Gardiner with the English Baroque Soloists
Johann Sebastian Bach: Brandenberg No. 3 in G Major, BWV 1048
Ensemble led by Pinchas Zukerman

More shocking is comparing two recordings of Bach’s B Minor mass. I grew up listening to conductor Otto Klemperer at his most magisterial (some would say bombastic) with a chorus of a thousand, but Joshua Rifkin, with his intimate chamber version of one singer on a part, stole my heart in college.

Bach: Mass in B Minor, BWV 232: Klemperer
Bach: Mass in B Minor, BWV 232: Rifkin

Apart from obvious physical changes to the bow, the material used in the strings, and structural changes to the bodies of the instruments, some of you may notice that even the pitch is different in historical performance practice. This is because as the instruments changed, the default pitch crept up over the centuries. The note that musicians tuned to back then (which they called an “A,”) sounds like what we would call today an “A-Flat.” Subsequently, our modern “A” to them would sound painfully high.

It is as if the Royal Observatory at Greenwich (upon which we base time: GMT, or Greenwich Mean Time) had gradually moved 20 or 30 miles away from where it was a few hundred years ago so that 3:00 in the afternoon today was 10 minutes earlier back then (yes, the analogy fails on some basic scientific level but roll with me, ok?). If the Boston Symphony Orchestra tunes today to “A 443” (443 is the number of measurable and empirical vibrations per second), the A back in 1720 was measured as “A 415.” They know this partially from old organs where the tuned pipes, made of metal, are an accurate indicator of where notes used to be.

Console of the great organ in Freiberg Cathedral (Saxony, Germany)from 1714 by master organ builder Gottfried Silberman

The Winter Baroque concert will be tuned at A 415 – except for the solo Bach cello suite (which will be at A 443). Which is partly why Eliana is switching cellos in the Bach suite. Apart from spending most of her time on a modern instrument, for all that she might be sacrificing some agility by forgoing a light-on-its-feet baroque set up, being able to summon extra power when she needs it for something as massive as solo Bach is a trade-off she is willing to make. Come to St. Paul’s to judge for yourself on December 18th.

David Yang, Artistic Director


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