The field of early music and historically authentic performance appears to be a still-growing proposition, as reflected in this year's Boston Early Music Festival (BEMF). The festival opens tomorrow and continues through June 18.
"We live in a very aggressive, fast-paced society," says renowned lutenist Paul O'Dette, co-director with Peter Holman of the eighth biennial festival, the oldest and most prestigious in the country. "A lot of people like to hear music that has a more soothing quality, that doesn't beat them over the head. Early instruments are softer than their modern counterparts, with a wide palette of colors available and a more intimate, delicate, conversational quality that is quite attractive."
Entitled "Henry Purcell & the English Baroque," the festival celebrates the composer's life and work in the tricentennial year of his death.
The centerpiece will be five performances of Purcell's most popular semi-opera, "King Arthur." In addition to that fully staged work, the festival hosts the world's largest early-instrument exhibition, featuring more than 120 craftsmen from five continents. along with instrument and bowmakers, exhibitors include dealers of rare books, prints, manuscripts, and antique instruments, as well as record companies, publishers, and manufacturers. There will also be a 32-panel exhibit sponsored by the British Arts Council entitled "The Age of Purcell & Dryden."
The premiere of "King Arthur" fulfills one of the BEMF's strongest missions: to create performances that would not have the opportunity to happen otherwise. Mr. O'Dette explains, "Rather than just bringing in the most popular groups, we try to feature collaborative efforts, the best performers joined together in special combinations."
Henry Purcell (1659-1695) is arguably the greatest English composer of all time, extremely fluent in every important musical genre of his day.
"With his innate talent," O'Dette says, "he was able to blend the most interesting and attractive of the English style and its harmonic daring with the elegance of French dance repertoire and the virtuosity of Italian music to create a wonderful kaleidoscopic effect," O'Dette says.
With words by Restoration poet John Dryden, "King Arthur" premiered in 1691 and held the stage until the 1740s.
Productions since that time usually have been heavily edited to conform to the standards of traditional Italian opera. The BEMF production aims to present the work as it was performed in Purcell's own time, and it will be only the second authentic performance in more than 250 years and the first in this country. (William Christie's Les Arts Florissants presented the first such reconstruction in Europe just last month.) There are discussions under way regarding possible film and audio recording options.
The English 'resorted to dialogue'
The semi-opera's unique blend of music and spoken dialogue makes it difficult to stage, with its disparate groups of actors, singers, dancers, and instrumentalists. The main characters are portrayed by actors, and the music helps to color, amplify, and comment on the spoken dialogue.
"It's often been said about the semi-opera that the English were not capable of writing an entire opera set to music, so they had to resort to dialogue," O'Dette explains. "But the English thought they were creating a wonderful mixture of the best of English theater and music, with some things best expressed musically and others best expressed in spoken text.
"Over the years, people tended to edit the text into a narration, which was really a shame. In the case of 'King Arthur,' the libretto by Dryden is superb, and one doesn't really appreciate the music fully until it's heard juxtaposed with the spoken dialogue and one sees the accompanying spectacle. It requires everything to have a full impact."
"King Arthur" will feature an international cast of instrumental and vocal performers. Singers will include Suzie Le Blanc, Julia Gooding, Christine Brandes, Ellen Hargis, William Hite, Alan Bennett, Robin Blaze, Brian Link, Jeffrey Johnson, Nathaniel Watson, and Curtis Streetman.
The work will be directed by Jack Edwards, with historically based sets and costumes by James Middleton. The Ken Pierce Baroque Dance Company will provide dance of the period. O'Dette and Mr. Holman will be interpreting and rehearsing the landmark production, but, as in Purcell's time, the performances will be done without a conductor.
Other festival highlights include performances by the Anonymous 4, Fretwork, and Andrew Lawrence King's the Harp Consort. The BEMF Orchestra will be featured in an evening of "Music From the London Pleasure Gardens," led by concert mistress Elizabeth Blumenstock.
The English theme will be broadened to include medieval and late Baroque as well, and there will be more than 75 concurrent events featuring performers from around the world. There also will be lectures, master classes, and symposia ranging from the specific "Language and Slang in 17th Century England" to the more general "Demystifying Recording: Black Boxes, CDs, Radios and Demos."
Late night concerts
The festival also sponsors a series of "Late Night" concerts as well as the intriguing "After Theatre & So to the Taverne," strolling concerts by LiveOak & Company presented each night at Jacob Wirth Taverne after the evening's main events.
BEMF will be centered at the Boston Park Plaza Castle and Hotel Conference Center, with events taking place also at the Emerson Majestic Theatre and a variety of concert halls and churches in Boston's Back Bay.
"The repertoire is some of the most complex and sophisticated ever written," O'Dette says of early music, "yet there is also a lot of variety which manifests itself in some fairly simple, straightforward, and accessible music - tuneful and rhythmic. And because the composers were also the performers, there was a sense of spontaneity. There was very little composed by sitting at a desk, trying on paper to come up with something very clever. Composers were creating music straight from the heart."
For more information, call: (617) 661-1812. For tickets: (508) 741-2363.