2016 sees the 25th anniversary of Danish period instrument ensemble Concerto Copenhagen. Led since 1999 by Lars Ulrik Mortensen, the ensemble – known colloquially as CoCo – has gone from strength to strength. As Mortensen points out, “the ensemble is Denmark’s most exported classical music ‘article’. No other Danish ensemble has, over the last ten years, performed at the Vienna Musikverein, the Vienna Konzerthaus, at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, at the Royal Albert Hall, at the Library of Congress in New York, and in the concert halls of Tokyo and China!” Approaching its big anniversary, Mortensen took time to reflect on how far CoCo has come along with plans to celebrate its 25th birthday.

Concerto Copenhagen and Lars Ulrik Mortensen © ts photo
Concerto Copenhagen and Lars Ulrik Mortensen
© ts photo

When I ponder how much period instrument performance practice has changed over the past 25 years, Mortensen is passionate that interpretation should vary from day to day. “I would hope that I would perform Bach and Vivaldi and other baroque music slightly differently today than I did even yesterday!” he exclaims. “Musical performance is a living, breathing organic thing and is not about reproducing what you did yesterday unaltered today.

Mortensen concedes, though, that things have moved on in the period instrument world. “I think all over the world – and definitely in Scandinavia – the general level of performance has risen enormously during the last decade or so. People are playing better, there are more people interested and involved in historical performance music practice and CoCo itself now, compared to our past, manages to recruit many more players locally and we are not as dependent on “imports” from the European mainland as we were then. But also the familiarity with the music has, of course, changed and hopefully improved. In 1999, I had only just started conducting and I feel myself on much firmer ground regarding insights into the music and regarding the ways and means I use to transform those insights into living musical performance.”

Lars Ulrik Mortensen © Kim Wendt
Lars Ulrik Mortensen
© Kim Wendt
During his 17 years at the helm, Mortensen has notched up a number of achievements, such as the first Handel opera performance on period instruments in Denmark, Handel’s Giulio Cesare from 2002 (revived in 2005), or their BBC Prom at the Royal Albert Hall where they performed Partenope. “But what I’m probably most proud of is simply that we’ve existed for 25 years and will look as if we’ll continue to do so. In a musical environment like Denmark where a lot of public financing is reserved for the big orchestras – of which we are not one – and also where a lot of cultural funding is dependent on private funding, we have managed to come through 25 years and have actually been able to steadily increase our level of performance and also the number of performances. I am extremely proud of the fact that our dedication to the life of early music and classical music in general is still going on.”

Concerto Copenhagen’s performances of Handel operas have been part of a very fruitful co-operation with the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen where they perform a baroque or early opera every season. “Over the years, that has meant playing operas by Handel , Monteverdi (Ulysses and Poppea) and we’ve also ventured into Mozart (La clemenza di Tito, Don Giovanni). If this collaboration continues, we’ll be doing Purcell’s The Fairy Queen this autumn in Copenhagen and there are many plans to continue with that collaboration for the future. In addition to that, we have also in recent years undertaken our own performances of early opera. We did Vivaldi’s Ottone in Villa last year and there are various plans for our own opera productions.”

Sine Bundgaard (Cleonilla) in Vivaldi's <i>Ottone in Villa</i> © Soren Meisner
Sine Bundgaard (Cleonilla) in Vivaldi's Ottone in Villa
© Soren Meisner
Is there a dichotomy, I wondered, between a period instrument ensemble, recreating the music as faithfully to composers’ intentions as possible and productions which take liberties with their libretti? Mortensen isn’t so sure. “I don’t feel so much that there’s a dichotomy between a way of playing and liberties that a director should – and is definitely allowed to – take with the performance.

“Of course, we use period instruments and we use what we take to be stylistic conventions in force at the time the music was composed, but I must say very squarely that our chief aim in performing on period instruments is not to create an alleged copy of what Bach or Handel or Vivaldi might have intended. We do not know anything about that. But our chief artistic and musical aim is surely to create a musical world which is of our own time, not a museum but a sound picture which is relevant and moving to a 21st century audience. Thus actually what we aim to do is so be much more modern than anything else on the market.

“What sometimes has disturbed me is when there is a gap between the story – or the ‘subtitles’ to the story, if you will – which the music tells and what is being realised visually on stage. For me, it’s not so much a question of the time or the look of a performance – having said that, of course, I’d really love to do a 100% authentic staging of a Baroque opera, we’ve never done that – but I don’t think that necessarily with an open and an intelligent direction I don’t think there’s any clash between the sound and the feel of the music.”

It’s not just baroque repertoire that Concerto Copenhagen focuses on. Mortensen is clearly delighted that there is ongoing work exploring Nordic composers. “We’ve always felt an obligation in Co-Co to focus a lot on Scandinavian baroque music and Scandinavian music in general. In previous years, we did that for baroque and early classical repertoire by playing a lot by the Swedish composer Johan Helmich Roman (sometimes called ‘The Swedish Handel’) who’s a very important historical and musical figure in Scandinavia. We’ve done classical music by Nordic composers – symphonies by Friedrich Kunzen, Johann Schulz and Paolo Scalabrini (an Italian who settled in Denmark in 1747). We’re now beginning to travel even later and 2017 will see us playing romantic music by Danish composers like Niels Gade, who was Mendelssohn’s assistant at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig and a very important figure in 19th century music. We’ve also played early romantic symphonies by Georg Gerson, a Danish composer who is close to my heart. This venture into the unknown with all the questions that that asks and all the challenges of that form is something that we’re definitely going to give greater priority in the coming years.”

“2016 is going to be the busiest in Co-Co’s entire history!” Mortensen declares. “We’ll be starting in January by doing Handel’s Israel in Egypt with the Dutch Chamber Choir in Copenhagen and in the Konzerthaus in Vienna. Then there’s a lot of touring later on – the St John Passion in Germany and Denmark and to China, which features a replica of our very first programme that Concerto Copenhagen did back in 1991, which should be fun. And during the summer, we plan a series of birthday concerts in the Tivoli concert hall in Copenhagen, presenting a wide range of repertoire and performing forces/performing groups, hopefully giving people a comprehensive impression of what Co-Co’s activites are and the musical philosophy which we stand for.”

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This article was sponsored by Concerto Copenhagen.