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Going for Baroque

Vermont's early-music aficionados know the score


Published October 15, 2003 at 7:26 p.m.

Four men and two woman mug and gesture as they mimic an incompetent royal entourage preparing for a hunt. (It's important to taste the animal's droppings.) The harmonies emitting from their lips are as sweet and ethereal as their pantomime is absurd. This is the Oxford vocal ensemble I Fagiolini, performing at the University of Vermont's Recital Hall on November 5. While their playfulness might startle those who expect a concert-hall experience to be "heavy," it's surprisingly in tune with the spirit of early music.

Once the esoteric province of academic musicologists, early music is becoming increasingly mainstream in the classical music world. And while krummhorns and sackbuts aren't likely to replace pianos and violins any time soon, performances that evoke the era of those old instruments are plentiful in Vermont.

What exactly is "early music?" Depending on the age of the person you ask, it could be anything pre-big band, pre-Beatles or even pre-Britney. But for most public-radio listeners, the dividing line is Bach. "Early music" is a term used in college classrooms and the recording industry to refer to pieces from the European Middle Ages, Renaissance and Baroque period. Cross the mid-18th-century line into Mozart and Haydn's territory and you're dealing with "classical music" in the stricter sense.

Back in the 1960s, early music had a reputation as the shaggy-haired hippie sibling of staid classical music. Though the field encompassed perennial favorites such as Bach and Handel, it was also full of seldom played or recorded compositions. For many, the early music "movement" was about reviving music the major classical labels and programmers viewed as too quaint or too culturally remote Ñ or just plain too weird Ñ to find an audience.

"It suddenly made people interested in all the stuff that was there that we didn't know much about. So you dig it all out… some of it's lousy and some of it's terrific," says Bill Metcalfe. An emeritus professor of history at the University of Vermont, he started the UVM Baroque Ensemble in 1965, along with his harpsichordist wife Elizabeth and current Lane Series Director Jane Ambrose.

For 23 years, the group provided Vermonters a window onto the early-music scene, playing medieval-era through late Baroque pieces in "concerts which looked very similar to concerts that were being given in London, Amsterdam, New York, Boston," says Metcalfe.

The ensemble made use of period instruments and Baroque pitch Ñ a semitone down from modern pitch. "We didn't have any trouble getting audiences," recalls Metcalfe, who now conducts the 35-member Oriana Singers. "Perhaps it was a time when people were just ready to listen to new things Ñ or very old things that were new to them."

In the '70s and '80s, Vermont was something of a rural hotbed for early music, with local fixtures like the Baroque Ensemble, the Goddard-based group Fire and Lightning, and a family business in Duxbury called Tourin Musica, which manufactured harpsichords and viols.

Nowadays, while there may be fewer homegrown offerings, early music isn't hard to find. This season in Vermont [see sidebar], it's featured on the programs of the Mozart Festival, the Lane Series, at the Vergennes Opera House and Middlebury College, and at Montpelier's Capital City Concert Series' annual Bach Concert. There, Bach will be presented on modern instruments along with a harpsichord, in what series director and flutist Karen Kevra calls a "bold and romantic" style.

"What we do is not an early-music approach," says Kevra, revealing an interesting quirk in the early-music concept. For some the term simply refers to a certain category of composers and scores. For others, early music represents a sort of living history: an effort to recreate the sounds and listening experiences of another age.

In music magazines, debates rage over issues such as the validity of using standardized modern instruments to perform pieces that were written for wooden flute or viola da gamba. "I'm not sure the term ‘early music' is necessary anymore," says Metcalfe. "The way one performs music of earlier periods has become the dividing line."

With the more frequent performance of early music in the '60s came a movement toward "historically informed performance"Ñ an effort to recreate the original listening experience. This could involve anything from using period instruments to playing in a smaller hall to sleuthing after the composer's intentions.

"We look for spaces that are like the spaces of the 18th century," says Ambrose, a flutist who will be playing at the Vergennes Opera House. "We happen to be lucky in Vermont that we can find old buildings to play in."

Ambrose points out that many pieces we associate with large concert halls were originally written for venues more similar to clubs such as Red Square or Higher Ground. "Bach's Brandenburg Concertos were performed in a coffeehouse in Leipzig," she says. "It was not a formal audience… people were drinking coffee, drinking beer. It was a social center." Pieces composed for the church, by contrast, "feel right" in a sacred space.

Old buildings may be easy to find, but period instruments Ñ original or reconstructed Ñ pose a greater hurdle. "I have a certain admiration for musicians who play authentic instruments," says Kevra, noting that the non-standardization of early instruments makes pitch hard to control. "Modern instruments allow more subtlety and tone color."

Ambrose, who has spent years perfecting her technique on a wooden Baroque flute with one key, concedes, "It's a real challenge. But once you learn to do it, you know that you're hearing the music the way the composer heard that music and meant for it to be heard."

To explain why, Ambrose points to Bach's Second Brandenburg Concerto, with its solo parts for recorder, trumpet, violin and oboe Ñ instruments with very distinct sounds and volume levels. "If you take those four instruments in their Baroque form, they're perfectly balanced in dynamic level," Ambrose says. Replacing the recorder with a much louder flute, as modern orchestras have traditionally done, throws off the balance.

Period instruments "tell you how to play them," Metcalfe suggests. "You have to unlearn some things and relearn others." The listener, too, will notice differences. Period instruments are softer, "more subtle and perhaps more capable of blending," according to Metcalfe. Vibrato, the ornamentation beloved of 19th-century virtuosi and modern pop divas, was used more sparingly by musicians in Bach's day.

"You have to adjust your ears to a very different acoustic," says Ambrose. Growing up, she was familiar with Baroque pieces played by large modern orchestras. "The first time I heard that repertory with instruments of the period was just so eye-opening, I knew immediately that was what I wanted to do."

Some music scholars make a crusade out of period-instrument purism. In the heyday of the "historically informed" performance movement, music critic Andrew Porter made waves with his claim that hearing Bach on modern instruments was like seeing a Rembrandt reproduced in watercolors or acrylics. Ambrose disagrees, feeling there's a place for modern updates. "There are some people who play the earlier repertoire, like the Bach suites [written for harpsichord], beautifully on piano," she suggests.

Most musicians today realize that it's impossible to recreate an original performance of Bach or Handel with complete accuracy. Still, says Metcalfe, the "historically informed" movement has had a ripple effect on the music world as a whole. Not only are singers and musicians better prepared to do justice to early composers than they were 20 years ago, but "later and later music became ‘early music,' in a funny sense," he notes. Today one also hears of "historically informed" performances of 19th-century composers such as Brahms and Berlioz.

If early music has changed the way professionals think about music, it's also had an impact on amateurs. "There's a popular misconception that early music can be academic and unexciting," says Tim Tavcar, director of the Vergennes Opera House. But, he notes, in many ways early music was "more populist" than its classical successors.

Though the notion of "virtuosity" wasn't unknown in the past, many Renaissance and medieval pieces have a simplicity that makes them playable by nonprofessionals, says Metcalfe. At the Amherst Early Music Festival, a major two-week event that will move to Bennington next summer, amateurs as well as professionals can perfect their techniques on brass lute, harp or viol.

Part of early music's appeal for both artists and audiences is that it "brings parts of history into our lives today," offers Marybeth McCaffrey. A health-care policy analyst based in Lincoln, McCaffrey directs the organization Early Music Vermont and the Lincoln vocal trio celestial Sirens (lower case intentional), who went to the finals of the "Prairie Home Companion" Talent From Towns Under 2000 contest with their rendition of an obscure 15th-century "Gloria."

McCaffrey suggests that her performances strive more for vitality, emotion and relevance than for academic accuracy. But, as I Fagiolini knows, and the traveling singers and players of the Renaissance no doubt understood as well, old music draws new life from the people who play and hear it.