This is a quiet week for early music in the Bay Area—a late Spring Break, so to speak, after the regular seasons of our resident groups have ended and preparations for next week’s Early Music Bonanza are being finalized. The only concert, in fact, is a Festival preview Thursday noon by upcoming Fringe ensemble La Marina, who will raise their sackbuts high at the Berkeley Library (not in the reading room, we hope) to trumpet the news and drum up interest.
From its inception, the Berkeley Festival has been justly renowned for the international artists it brings to play, sing, exhibit, sometimes teach or lecture, and otherwise convene with kindred spirits. This year’s main stage once again will present some of the greatest performers of their generations, at least three of whom have fundamentally re-defined—or are redefining—their instruments and repertories.
Bruce Dickey, to take the earliest example, is the reason the Renaissance cornett has the prestige it does today, or even is regarded as more than an historical curiosity. In the 1960s and ‘70s, a few people could play this arcane wooden tube with finger holes and a tiny, cup mouthpiece, although we had some knowledge of its historical reputation and literature, but it was Dickey who discovered, or re-invented, the instrument’s technique, ran with it, taught an entire generation the secrets of its beauty, and with his colleague Charles Toet, who did much the same for the historical trombone, opened a whole world of historical music to our ears through their legendary ensemble, Concerto Palatino.
Kristian Bezuidenhout, whom we praised last week, is doing much the same thing for the fortepiano, considered by many a sort of musical Australopithecus, an imperfect dead-end on the evolutionary path from clavichord to pianoforte. Bezuidenhout has shown that is anything but the case, that the fortepiano is one of the most expressive and flexible keyboards imaginable, and the ideal vehicle for interpreting the works of Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, even Beethoven, as late as the 4th piano concerto.
And then there is Vox Luminis, the Belgian vocal ensemble whose American debut at the 2014 Festival blew away just about everybody in the audience. To make people sit up and take notice of an obscure instrument is impressive enough. To make them realize how perfectly balanced, how flawless, how serene yet passionate the human voice can be in consort is perhaps an even more astonishing achievement. Yet there it was—quite simply the best ensemble singing I’ve heard in my life. I can’t wait to hear them do Jesu, meine Freude this year, my favorite, and perhaps the most perfect, of Bach’s motets.
These and other great artists from the east coast and abroad—notably, violinist Rachel Podger, the viol consort Parthenia and the Renaissance brass and vocal ensemble ¡Sacabuche!—no doubt will be the stars that garner the most attention from the press. And they all are worth your attention and patronage. This is going to be one amazing Festival.
What I really want to talk about, though, is our own community, the Bay Area artists who will be performing on the main stage this year, in some cases alongside their colleagues from abroad. Just as the international aspect of the Festival was set from the moment Festival Founding Director Robert Cole and his accomplice, SFEMS President Joseph Spencer, first conceived it, so was its embrace of our own, internationally renowned community. There are ample reasons why the Festival took root here a quarter century ago, and they had to do not only with the artistic vision of these founders but with what San Francisco Classical Voice’s Michelle Dulak called our “critical mass,” the abundance of fine, local musicians who have made the Bay Area’s early music scene what it is today.
Consider that the Bay Area at present has no fewer than five professional baroque orchestras, each with its own concert series. First came Philharmonia, vision of our visionary and muse, Laurette Goldberg, who 36 years ago mused to a group of friends, “I wonder what a baroque orchestra would sound like?” and changed Bay Area music forever just so she could find out. A decade later came American Bach Soloists, brainchild of tenor evangelist Jeffrey Thomas, whose purpose was to create a high-level, professional choir to perform the sacred works of Bach, and in the process also created the orchestra to accompany it; and Magnificat, cellist and conductor Warren Stewart’s project to revive and re-create the world the first century of baroque music, i.e., the 17th century, from Monteverdi to Charpentier, and was one of the first ensembles anywhere to dedicate itself to what had been a neglected corner of the historical repertory. In the past decade we’ve added two genuine chamber orchestras: Voices of Music, founded in 2007 by recorder and keyboard player Hanneke van Proosdij with her husband, Lutenist David Tayler, is an ensemble of flexible size, interpreting music of both the late Renaissance and baroque eras; and Archetti Baroque String Ensemble, is a true, string chamber orchestra, founded in 2010 by violinist Carla Moore and gambist John Dornenburg for the purpose of performing the concerto grosso and chamber concerto repertory of the mid to late baroque era.
This year we are presenting three of these great orchestras (All have participated as main stage acts at one time or another), and various of their members will appear as featured as soloists either in their own concerts or as soloists and ensemble members with other groups. The dynamic and formidable Elizabeth Blumenstock will share the spotlight with Rachel Podger in Bach’s great D Minor Concerto for 2 Violins BWV 1043. Hanneke and her former student Andrew Levy will play the (specially constructed) “echo flutes” with Podger in Bach’s Fourth Brandenburg. And harpsichordist Davitt Moroney, the organ and harpsichordist with Archetti, will open the Festival with a solo recital in tribute to the late Alan Curtis, who, along with Laurette Goldberg, was one of the original figures of the Bay Area’s early music scene, from the 1960s on, as well as a founding member of SFEMS and a participant in the first Berkeley Festival, 26 years ago.
Another formidable Bay Area violinist, Shira Kammen, will be featured in two concerts, her own—though she is loath to call it that—which she organized as a tribute to her mentor, the late, great vielle and gamba player (and much more than that), Margriet Tindemans; and along with Robert Mealy, on vielle and Renaissance violin, joining the Parthenia Consort for a delightful romp through the history of early string music, from the later Middle Ages through the dawn of the baroque era.
And as we have mentioned Robert Mealy, we may as well claim him too, a Bay Area native who attended Berkeley High as well as the SFEMS summer workshops, before going on to greater things, like being director of the early music program at the Juilliard conservatory.
The Bay Area artists represented on this year’s Main Stage are anything but “Local Talent.” They have made prodigious contributions to early music through their revival of unknown classics and are known across the globe for their work with the world’s greatest ensembles, from Sequenita to the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century. Philharmonia has just returned from sold-out performances at New York’s Carnegie Hall; David and Hanneke from Göttingen, where they have been core members of that city’s Internationale Händel-Festspiele. All these artists are international stars in their own right, emblematic of the performer-scholars who have captured the world’s attention, not only for our community, but for the “movement,” and most important of all, for the music we cherish and celebrate.