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Report on the Boston Early Music Festival

(written July, 1997)

    No question about it, the early music movement has been the most influential development in classical music over the past few decades. Their influence has extended far beyond merely those who only perform or listen to early music; the movement has now affected the entire classical music community. The most exciting performers today by far are the early music performers -- the whole classical music world knows this, and that's why we're all ears.

    There are several reasons for this rather surprising and unpredicted development, but perhaps the easiest to understand is that, quite simply, the top early music performers have surpassed performers of 19th and 20th century music in their abilities in:

       -- intonation
       -- rhythm and articulation
       -- nuances within dynamics
       -- knowledge of their instrument
       -- understanding of the historical context of the music they perform.

    In terms of dynamics in particular, I've noticed a fascinating crossing between the early music field and the standard repertory performers. It seems that the early music performers have by and large dropped the notion of strictly terraced dynamics and have developed a style utilizing graceful, beautiful, and subtle nuances of dynamics within each phrase -- even within each note -- while the standard repertory folks have gone in the opposite direction, deeming that style to be overly romantic, instead adopting more austere plateaus of dynamics which they regard as more in keeping with a structured, modern aesthetic.

    Bowing and bow design is another field where perhaps opinions are changing. I would have to regard the articulations of baroque violin playing as one of the most important influences on my own style over the last five years, so I am eager to learn more about the particulars of the baroque bow. I rode back from the festival with Harry Grabenstein, a Vermont bow-maker, who told me about an interesting group discussion he attended where some voiced the opinion that the ideal bow would produce tone perfectly evenly throughout its length.

    This viewpoint surprised me a little for I had a vague recollection that I had read something by Nikolaus Harnoncourt many years ago, when I was growing up, where he wrote that the baroque bow naturally produced a pleasing variation in tone, a swell in miniature, from one end to the middle and then to the other end. And I rather thought it would be modern violin pedagogy that would stress being able to play equally strongly from any part of the bow, evenness being a virtue of the recording age.

    I guess you could say I'm a "wanna-be" early musician, having in recent months developed an interest in learning the clavichord and the continuo organ. Fortuitously, the internationally-known biennial Boston Early Music Festival took place this past June, so I was able to attend and immerse myself in this world for about three days.

    There is no doubt an element of escapism at play here, but that is about the only negative thing I can say in regards to these early music enthusiasts, a negative far overshadowed by many, many positives. The early music crowd is well-known for being a friendly, supportive community and I certainly directly observed this to be the case. Professionals, semi-professionals, and amateurs mingled easily, and at the master classes encouraging words were said from one to another regardless of level.

    Why is this? My guess is that the humility and lack of egotistic posturing is due to the realization among the advanced players that they, too, are not masters of their instrument. After all, even the top players have not been performing on these instruments for too many years. They, too, are actively involved in learning how to play period instruments better, developing techniques, researching the history, experimenting. Maybe fifty years from now the community will be more stratified, but now there is a definite sensation that everyone is "in the same boat," as it were, on this special adventure together to understand the beauties of these ancient musics and learn how to perform it with ever-increasing quality.

    The mystery of discovering historical pieces of music and music traditions that have been forgotten seems to be a strong motivation for many in the early music field. Performers more frequently than not double as musicologists, actively researching some heretofore unnoticed composer or performance tradition of the past. How refreshingly different from performers of the standard repertory, who generally avoid musicologists and theorists, only interested in improving their technical facility and learning the "great classics" ad infinitum, almost wearing their lack of interest in historical context or compositional theory as a misguided badge of honor...

    Another praiseworthy aspect of the early music community is the partnership of the performers with the instrument builders. Again, their healthy attitude may be derived from the relative youth of the field. The builders need the performers to give them feedback as they experiment, and the performers of course need the builders to create the period instruments for them to play. As was pointed out at the festival, this is a restoring of the dynamic that used to exist in prior centuries, where special instruments would be built by request of a particular performer/composer to fill a need. (Although this link between performer and instrument builder did weaken in the earlier part of our century, there has been much collaboration in recent decades in pop music between the star performers and the builders of electronic instruments.)

    The early music family seems to be maturing nicely. The instrument builders, the musicologists, the theorists, the listener and the performer, amateur and professional, student and teacher, seem to be interacting in a healthy, supportive way. They seem to be listening to each other with sincerity, and for that, I applaud them. What a contrast with the general classical music world, which has fallen into the trap of of over-specialization and the complete isolation of disciplines.

    The Boston Early Music Festival has a fabulous instrument exhibition. There are more clavichords, harpsichords, flutes, violins -- and even instruments whose names you've never heard of -- than you can imagine, and I spent many hours roaming the halls, playing these instruments and chatting with the amiable instrument builders. From time to time, there were scheduled demonstrations by competent performers of some of the special instruments in the various rooms.

    The "buzz" of the exhibition, and deservedly so, was a replica of a Cristofori piano of the 1720's, built by David Sutherland of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Cristofori was, of course, the inventor of the piano, so in essence I was playing a replica of one of the first pianos of all time -- a great thrill to me as a pianist, of course, and doubly so since the quality of the instrument was so high, with its clear and strong bass, definite colors to all the registers, and excellent regulation throughout. It was easy to play, with very little adjustment needed in finger-touch from what I was used to from the modern piano; you really felt like you had just shaken hands with your original ancestor, the first of the tribe...

    I also had the opportunity to play several fortepianos and other early keyboard instruments. By and large, these sounded far more mellow than I had expected. The stereotype I had of period instruments is that they would be sharper, edgier in tone than their modern counterparts, but at least the ones I played at the festival's exhibition were not so. The baroque oboes, too, that I heard were also quite a bit more rounder in tone than I thought they would be, although I was later told this is generally true of baroque oboes compared to modern ones. Perhaps early music recordings accentuate the "lean and mean" image somehow in the miking (or conceivably, in the playing). Anyway, it was all quite an eye-opener.

    Several very intelligent, first-class European musicians had been invited to perform and teach at the festival. I attended three master classes, one by Pedro Memelsdorff (recorder), one by Sarah Cunningham (gamba), and one by Stephen Stubbs (lute and theorbo). All three master classes were extremely enjoyable and pleasurable.

    Naturally, I learned some specific tips from these three musicians in regard to how best to play their respective instruments, but by and large I was impressed by how much of the information they imparted was not instrument-oriented, technical "shop talk" but rather ideas related directly to the music itself, thoughts on phrasing and articulation, on interpretation -- bits of musical wisdom applicable to you no matter what your instrument. It was reminiscent of the Schnabel school of piano pedagogy where you are a musician first, a pianist second; you need to cultivate a musical sensibility, know what direction you want to go musically with a phrase of music -- only after that question is explored do teacher and student proceed to the technical aspects of the physical instrument.

    These master-classes were also personally reassuring insofar as they offered confirmation of many of my own musical ideas, ideas which many professional musicians I have met in the U.S. and Canada have regarded as strange, ideas that however found echoes in the words of these European high-level performers and teachers. First, that we can take much more time in enjoying rests and silences. That we can be quite daring in extending these moments beyond what we think is metronomically correct, and in so doing the rhetoric and structure of the music is often clarified. And secondly, perhaps a related point, that we should not be afraid to play at a slow speed. Music is not always driven -- some passages are intentionally static and rather Eastern in their lack of direction. When those moments come, we should not panic, but play with poise, enjoy the tranquility, and not push the music. A slow pulse can create a beatiful stillness.

    No festival would be complete without concerts, of course, and the 1997 Boston Early Music Festival had a generous offering of live performances. In all honesty, one frequently sensed the musicians did not perform up to their full potential, although there were of course some extraordinarily beautiful moments. Quite charmingly, the festival has late-night concerts, and my favorite performance was an 11 pm all-Ockeghem program by the Orlando Consort. The music seemed almost more spiritual, more magical as we listened in half-tiredness after a hectic day at the festival. I jotted down my especial pleasure at their performances of the Offertorium of the Requiem Mass, the Petite camusette/S'elle m'amera, and the Agnus Dei of the Missa De plus en plus.

    De plus en plus -- "more and more" -- seems to be the way the early music movement is heading, at least for the time being. The last event I attended at the festival was a memorial service held on the final day of the festival for one of the first period instrument builders (if my memory is correct, I believe his name was Don Warnock). In many ways, the speakers at the service reconfirmed the many virtues of the early music community -- the mutual goodwill of performers and instrument-makers, working together towards a common goal; the camaraderie of professional and amateur, expert and apprentice, performer and listener; the willing coexistence of the spiritual and the secular, the recognition that an attitude of wonder is just as necessary as an appreciation of the earthly senses.

Your thoughts on the above are most welcome. E-mail me your comments and I’ll post excerpts from the most interesting replies right here. Please include, if you are willing, your name, town, and country. (However, to safeguard your privacy, I will not post your e-mail address.)