Just yesterday I had the pleasure of talking with Jeannette Sorrell, Music Director of Apollo’s Fire, the highly acclaimed period orchestra based in Cleveland, where she founded it twenty-three years ago. Today, rather like the venerable Cleveland Orchestra, Apollo’s Fire tours extensively in North America and Europe, bringing Ms. Sorrell’s warm, expressive vision of Baroque playing to both seasoned and neophyte audiences. Tomorrow, July 2, she will lead them at Tanglewood in a program called “Bach’s Coffee House,” referring to the Café Zimmermann in Leipzig, where first Georg Phillipp Telemann and later Johann Sebastian Bach organised free public concerts. The program will include excerpts from Telemann’s incidental music to Don Quixote, Bach’s Fourth and Fifth Brandenburgs, and short pieces by Handel and Vivaldi.
This spring has been teeming with a dizzying profusion of riches for the lover of early music in the Northeast. In April Carnegie Hall launched “Before Bach,” a month-long festival of Renaissance and Baroque music performed by the the most admired international groups and soloists in the field. Since this was an “on” year for The Boston Early Music Festival, an equally distinguished group of regulars and visitors just now packed about the same amount of musical activity into a week, supplemented by hosts of mostly outstanding comprimarii in its Fringe. This coming weekend BEMF’s western coda, consisting of Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 and his Orfeo, both performed in the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington, will overlap with the first weekend of one of the oldest festivals of early music, Aston Magna.
Reluctant to miss an opportunity to hear the great clarinettist Eric Hoeprich, especially after his sensitively nuanced performance of Mozart’s Kegelstatt Trio for the Boston Early Music Festival, I found it necessary, unfortunately, to miss an important BEMF evening in order to make the trek out to Brandeis. Daniel Stepner in fact apologized for the conflict, promising to avoid them in the future. Indeed, it would be to the advantage of Boston audiences if the two festivals could pool their resources to make it possible for BEMF audiences to hear the Aston Magna musicians, especially this one, devoted to a rarely heard, obsolete elder sibling of the clarinet, the chalumeau.
If the fugue is the highest form of counterpoint it’s because it is truly an art. No one would deny that fugues do not write themselves, yet they are based on simple, sincere imitation, the first, most obvious ingredient one hears, yet the freedom of the voices is the fugue’s sina qua non. Different voices “speak” their individual melodies, and miraculously the result is not only coherent but harmonious too, and, at least under the masters, such harmonies! From one point of view the fugue is the highest composer’s art, even over-specified, yet it is a form-texture deriving from the performer’s highest art, improvisation, the fantasy. The fugue is in a way the quintessence of music, taking something which initially seems rigid and rule-bound, well, at least over-obedient, and sheds those rules completely to become free and creative, the fundamentally horizontal linear elements become nonlinear, sounding just as sensible vertically; sound, a dumb mathematical, physical process obeying laws of time and space, is refined into an art which can speak directly to something deep inside a warm human being. So the fugue, even as theoreticians have for centuries tried to define it and the rules of its creation (without much success), culminating in Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Traité d’harmonie (1722), at the end of which he discusses fugues and how they are written, finally saying they cannot be reduced to general rules, except “le bon goût ou la fantasie.” J. S. Bach in turn put it most aptly of all… in his music.
Like all the great institutions which are celebrating anniversaries this year, Aston Magna’s 40th anniversary season is much like any other. What better way to celebrate an important anniversary than to maintain the quality one has been known for and to reaffirm the founding principles? This year’s season, launched by gala events at Brandeis and at Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood, will be rich in familiar repertory — Monteverdi, Purcell, Vivaldi, Telemann, the Bach family, and Mozart — and familiar faces: the violinist Daniel Stepner, the gambist Laura Jeppesen, harpsichordist John Gibbons, singers Dominique Labelle, Deborah Rentz-Moore, and William Hite. Of course Stanley Ritchie will be on hand. Some very distinguished artists will be joining them: keyboard players Peter Sykes and Malcom Bilson, and Eric Hoeprich, whose Glossa recording of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto I just now warmly praised in a review article—and this is only a few.
For a long time I was put off Vivaldi by the incessant repetitions of the Four Seasons on the local classical radio station. This was of course unfair, but it can be tricky to find performances of many of his other several hundred pieces (not least in Venice itself), and in fact the frequently encountered way of playing Vivaldi, with a certain edge, a forthright, frenetic sort of energy, which may display the technical virtuosity to maximum effect, is unfair too. Australian Brandenburg Orchestra artistic director and harpsichordist Paul Dyer and guest violinist and director Federico Guglielmo have constructed a program which is remarkably varied — indeed to present a program devoted to a single composer (or an exhibition devoted to a single artist) only really works with and artistic personality capable of a varied outlook lest we become oppressed by the artist’s obsessions. Some of these concerti have not been published and clearly the two musicians have put much deep thought and research into their performance. Here is a Vivaldi with subtlety of expression, which also puts to good use all of this orchestra’s skill across the instruments without showing off. All the concerti are “for several instruments” with some instruments re-apearing as soloists with a consistent personality and characteristically written parts, but with something quite different to say in each concerto. The program is carefully arranged in a kind of cycle, giving the sense of music taking us on a journey.
Having grown up in the northern hemisphere, the winter Christmas is ingrained in me, but the event is fundamentally connected to mid-winter. The pagan winter solstice festival with its strong connection to nature, namely the Sun, a celebration of the days starting to lengthen and a new year beginning, is tied to Christmas as the scriptural imagery is compatible with the older ritual’s. Zeus, Dionysus, Apollo, and Mithras are all also alleged to have been born on the (northern) winter solstice and St. Chrysostom said of the timing of the Nativity in the 4th Century ‘while the heathen were busied with their profane rites the Christians might perform their holy ones without disturbance’ but also thought it a suitable birthday for the ‘Sun of Righteousness.’ In that sense it naturally and intuitively doesn’t feel like the right festival for the southern hemisphere’s summer solstice. So unique traditions evolve here and the more appealing ones are strongly connected to nature — spending all your time outside enjoying the long daylight while it lasts, roses blooming, surfing, eating seafood, fresh fruit, especially cherries, etc. —, but still are colored by the northern traditions. With his Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, Sydney’s main squeeze for Baroque music and period instrument lovers, Paul Dyer provides the best music for this austral summer solstice Christmas, music which makes natural and festive sense. It is very serious, ‘scholarly’ music, but with the artistic spirit of the Baroque steeping it, it has a bright festive sunny quality too, especially in the style of their playing. Dyer has assembled a varied program of traditional carols played very thoughtfully, Spanish popular music from the 16th Century, late Baroque instrumental music and early Baroque motets and more recently composed pieces. Somehow Dyer’s enthusiasm, sense of occasion and serious-festive-art approach to music allows all this to hang together comfortably.
“Modernized Opera” can sound a little scary, especially if implicitly (mis-)associated with the term “upgrade” which came out of Hollywood and Silicon Valley almost simultaneously in the last several years. Perhaps this is why some people are so against it: it sounds as if their changing the notes to modern notes! Or completely reversing the tone of the opera in some sardonic way. Operas should not be modernized because they are old but because it makes sense to do so. The two terms in quotes shouldn’t be associated at all: the former is a style, the latter a consumerist slogan and a euphemism for dumbing-down. Bringing the action of the opera into the present either explicitly or in some less realistic or even abstracted way, where there is a motivation, can be a wonderful thing and be high art. When the imagery the designer and director create make poetical and musical sense in the way it unfolds through the piece, with its own internal logic compatible with that of the music, it is a wonderful thing and there is no reason modern images are necessarily excluded from this (there is the problem of literal contradictions in the libretto, references to “pastorella” or “boschi” or “selva” in an opera taken to the modern inner city, but those are a separate matter).