Burgeoning festival displays lesser-known musical treasures
``You don't need to go home to get your powdered wigs, your fleas, your black teeth. But you can feel free to applaud between movements, although not in the middle. It's a nice way to share, a key element of this 18th-century masterpiece.'' So said Roger Norrington, the English conductor whose knack for turning performances of ancient music into intimate happenings has made a sensation in England. This was Mr. Norrington's eagerly awaited American debut at the Seventh Annual Boston Early Music Festival, conducting another American first, Haydn's revised orchestration for his great choral masterpiece ``The Seasons.''
The audience responded with gusts of enthusiasm after the most stunning numbers of Haydn's musical depiction of an 18th-century natural paradise. At the end, the uproar was something like the summer storm depicted in the music by the violins, as the entire audience rose to their feet with applause, feet stamping, and whistles - taken in by the pure joy of the music, as were the orchestra and singers. Later, tenor Jeffrey Thomas said, ``It was my paradise as well as Haydn's.''
``The Seasons'' was a high point in this year's festival (June 7-14), widely recognized as the preeminent early-music festival in the United States and equivalent to the best in Europe. The festival, supported by a growing number of world-class artists residing in Boston, has mushroomed from an essentially local event to one of international proportions. This year it was more diverse, brilliant in performance, open-minded, and imaginative than ever:
At Boston's historic Park Plaza Castle, instrumentmakers from all over the world displayed their crafts and exchanged ideas with one another and their customers - professional and amateur musicians.
At the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Neal Zaslaw of Cornell University organized a week-long conference of scholarly papers and demonstrations, exploring the development of the violin - the ``core instruments in Western music,'' from the Italian school of the 17th century.
An outreach program brought festival musicians to Boston-area schools and schoolchildren to the festival.
The internationally regarded Erwin Bodky Competition for harpsichordists was won by 24-year-old Sophie Yates of London, in her debut US performance.
But the heart of the festival was some 50 performances that demonstrated why the early-music movement has all the freshness, vitality, enthusiasm, and charm of youth. With the commercial concert circuit given over largely to the tried and familiar, this festival was a celebration of the true eclecticism of Western music: music of folk peoples, wandering minstrels, dances, weddings, religious festivals, and popular songs, each drawing from the other.
The festival provided the opportunity to hear some lesser-known treasures on rarely heard instruments, as in a premi`ere performance of a group of Buxtehude cantatas by the 40-member Abendmusik, conducted by James David Christie. There was the regal, a table organ pumped by one person while another played the keyboard; the theorbo, a long-necked relative of the lute; and an orchestra of baroque strings, woodwinds, muted trumpets, and trombones.
Catherine Turocy, artistic director of the New York Baroque Dance Company, re-created the enchanted lovers, gods, and goddesses of ballets scored by Lully, Rameau, Handel, and Mozart, from scanty descriptions of the original choreography. In her white period mask, Miss Turocy projected a character of doll-like grace. And her considerable wit delighted the audience in a Commedia Dell' Arte Suite, which included the naughty Harlequin, a hilarious three-legged sailor, and the hit of the evening, Mozart's charming ballet ``Les Petits Riens.''
This year's vocal performances, full of improvisation and inventiveness, illuminated a period when the voice was considered the prime instrument. Principals Jeannie Ommerl'e, Richard Wistreich, and Jeffrey Thomas excelled in ``The Seasons,'' especially in their matching of vocal inflection to the subtle meaning of the text.
For many listeners, the highlight of the week was the unearthly beauty of the Ensemble Project Ars Nova and its hour-and-a-half of improvisational interplay between the pure, sweet voices of Michael Collver and Laurie Monahan and the sounds of the vielle (a stringed instrument), rebec (precursor to the violin), and lute. And there was the perfect intonation and close harmony of the famous Hilliard Ensemble from England, which amazed audiences with madrigals, in which each of the three top voices sang a different text, and with another piece in which two canons were sung forward and backward simultaneously.
Other events underscored unorthodoxy, such as the performance by Don Angle, the Victor Borge of the harpsichord, who interspersed one-liners with toe-tapping jazz, blues, ragtime, and the Beatles, and the Amsterdam Loeki Stardust Quartet, which played on an assortment of recorders ranging from seven feet tall to the size of a penny whistle. The quartet alternated Bach, Frescobaldi, and Palestrina with Henry Mancini's ``Pink Panther'' and a surrealistic contemporary work of Franz Geysen. Clearly this programming was no accident - the keynote throughout was the universality, versatility, and earthiness of music prior to the formality of the modern concert hall.
Finally, it was a week of glorious harpsichord playing, capped by a stunning performance by John Gibbons on the newly restored Hemsch harpsichord at the Museum of Fine Arts. Mr. Gibbons's brilliant performance exposed the instrument's range of tonal beauty and expressive nuance. In the concluding dance suite of Bach, one felt transported not backward in time, but to some heavenly frontier where time doesn't exist.
A related article appears on Page 18.