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Everything old is new again at Boston festival; Early music event showcases music pre-Mozart, Haydn.

June 30, 2013


BOSTON -- The Boston Early Music Festival is an annual event, thelargest and most prestigious of its kind in the world. This year'sextravaganza, with the theme Youth: Genius and Folly , lived up toits reputation. It featured the greatest players and mostpassionate scholars in the field today.

The festival featured a series of concerts from June 9 to June 16at as many as 30 venues, centered at the Revere Hotel. Featuredwere the Boston Early Music Orchestra and singers and dancers whoare part of the festival.

"Early Music" refers to anything from Greek antiquity and theMiddle Ages through the end of the Baroque, around 1750. Therepertory had to be rediscovered, and that process has beengradual. In the 1800s, anything before Mozart and Haydn wasignored. Bach was the first, and since then we have graduallyworked our way back. There were problems, including ancientinstruments, which may not have a modern counterpart; singingstyles that had to be rediscovered; and how to deal with music forthe castrato (yes, that's what it means ... a male soprano made,not born).

All this has been hotly debated among musicians and historians forthe last 60 or so years. Even pitch was lower 400 years ago -- andthe festival's practice of matching that pitch was appreciated bythe singers.

Sacred poems

Where to begin? Let's start with the performance of a dozenCantigas de Santa Maria by Alfonso X, King of Spain in the secondhalf of the 13th century. Known as el Sabio (the Wise), he was notonly a political leader but also one of the most learned scholarsof his day. The Cantigas are his own sacred poems and havehauntingly beautiful melodies, each with a peculiar rhythmicstructure.

That's all we have. Instrumental accompaniment has to bere- created, in this case by the Newberry Consort performing JordanHall at New England Conservatory. Their instruments includedflutes, bagpipes, percussion, lutes, harps, vielles and rebecs(ancestors of the violin). The melodies were sung by Exultemus, sixsingers with Artistic Director Ellen Hargis taking the leadingrole.

The language was Medieval Portuguese; the translated text wasprojected in a series of slides of art from the period. It allowedthe audience to remain fully involved in the narrative, and theconcluding a capella setting of Rosa das Rosas was so exquisitelybeautiful that we were reluctant to break the mood with applause.

Then there was the ensemble Hesperion XXI, directed by JordiSavall, in a performance of music from Baroque Istanbul, at theJordan Hall. Istanbul of that age was the center of both theIslamic and the Orthodox Christian world. The music combinesTurkish with Greek, Armenian and Sephardic Jewish cultures. Themusic is wildly different from what concertgoers usuallyexperience. The instruments are all Middle Eastern: the oud, theduduk, the ney and the kanun, along with a very busy percussionist.All the players played several instruments, and they shifted frompiece to piece. The concert was divided into four sets of fourpieces each, played as a medley, and each introduced by a soloimprovisation.

Much of the music was improvised, but much was written to be playedtogether, and these musicians displayed an incredible virtuosityand perfect ensemble playing in the most difficult passages. Theywere rewarded with a standing ovation and an encore -- the samemelody from Turkish, Greek and Armenian sources.

Opera, too

But the feature of the festival was a revival of Handel's operaAlmira. This was Handel's first opera, written at age 19.

The libretto is partially in German, partially in Italian, andwholly incomprehensible. It was written for Hamburg, where it washugely successful, but the young composer was aware of hislimitations, and subsequently traveled to Italy to learn how towrite Italian opera. It is almost never performed, eclipsed by hismature works, but the festival gave it a treatment that mostcomposers can only fantasize about in their wildest imaginations.

The stage direction by Gilbert Blin was incomparable. Heincorporated dance into almost every scene, brilliantly executed bysingers and dancers alike. Costumes and sets were lavish andperiod- appropriate (avoiding those insane productions that have thecharacters in leather jackets riding motorcycles, and singing ariaseated on a toilet).

The work is a comedy, but it combines the humor with humanity.Almira (Ulrike Hofbauer) is Queen of Spain, crowned following thedeath of her father. She must wed, and there is the expectedshuffling of suitors before she finally can marry her true love,Fernando (Colin Balzer). Along the way, we have a visiting princeof Mauritania, Raymondo (Tyler Duncan), and the court beauty,Edilia (Amanda Forsythe), lots of jealousy, deception -- andoccasionally some real and touching emotion. The broad comedy isprovided by Fernando's servant Tabarco (Jason McStoots, a giftedyoung tenor with wonderful comedic talents). By the final scene,the shifting pairs of lovers have been successfully sorted out, andfour weddings are in the future.

Musically, this work has many of the traits that mark the matureHandel, especially his uncanny capacity to convey human emotionthrough melody. One could not hear Almira's third act lament, withonly cello and harpsichord accompaniment, without tears. Then therewas Edilia's white-hot rage, and wild coloratura, that closed thesecond act. The singer simply stood center stage, with a look ofhatred that could freeze one's blood, while four other minorcharacters danced around her. It was brilliant, inventive staging.

This is perhaps a better production than this opera deserved andthe audience responded enthusiastically.

There is something purely magical about hearing music written inthe distant past -- music for such a different time and place, yetstill we can enjoy and celebrate by our common humanity.

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