Sir John Eliot Gardiner finds new experiences with ancient opera

Illustrious English conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner has been presenting the music of 16th century composer Claudio Monteverdi for over half a century, but he still considers the concerts as works in progress.

“Performances are noticeably different. There is a fresh approach every time,” says Gardiner, 72, who leads his Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists at Davies Symphony Hall on Monday in a concert performance of Monteverdi's 1607 “L'Orfeo,” the world’s second oldest surviving opera, after Jacopo Peri's 1600 “Euridice.” (Coincidentally, both are based on the Greek legend about the musician Orpheus who attempts to bring his is dead bride back to life.)

Gardiner, who founded the Monteverdi Choir 51 years ago, has worked ceaselessly to present Baroque music.

When he started his career, music performed on period instruments was a rarity. At first, Gardiner says, “There were few musicians who could play such ancient instruments as early baroque cornetts and sackbuts, so usually modern instruments were substituted. But after mostly Flemish and Austrian pioneers introduced authentic performances, the genre developed quickly.”

Today, the situation has changed markedly, with many organizations, including San Francisco's Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, dedicated to playing authentic instruments and employing stylistic performance practices of the period.

Performances of “Orfeo” are based on the first print of the score, published in 1670. “Monteverdi was unusually specific about instrumentation, specifying, for example, a wooden organ,” says Gardiner, who has recorded the opera twice.

“Orfeo” has been called “the root of all opera,” a combination of music and theater that survived the centuries and stayed in the repertory.

In Davies Hall, the performance will not include staging and choreography typically seen in opera houses. And, at Gardiner’s preference, it will be presented without intermission, in about two hours.

IF YOU GO

L’Orfeo

Presented by Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists

Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., S.F.

When: 8 p.m. April 27

Tickets: $15 to $55

Contact: (415) 864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org

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