Every other summer, the city of Boston becomes the ultimate destination for connoisseurs of early music – that is, music written many centuries ago and performed in the style popular at the time of its composition. But as music lovers of all types have discovered over the years, this “rarefied” music is as beautiful, exciting, and relevant as anything written in recent times. Next month from June 6 through 14th, the Boston Early Music Festival will present its “weeklong extravaganza of early music” (The Boston Herald), jam-packed with fully-staged opera performances, concerts by the world’s leading soloists and ensembles, over 100 concurrent events including lectures and dance workshops and the world-famous Exhibition.
Founded in 1981, the Boston Early Music Festival (or BEMF, as they are commonly known) was the brainchild of dedicated instrument makers and performers living in the Boston area who saw a unique opportunity to introduce American musicians and audiences to the innovative work rediscovering and reinvigorating music of the past that had been underway in Europe for several decades. In addition to a handful of performances of masterpieces by then little-known composers François Couperin, Marin Marais, and Claudio Monteverdi (whose Coronation of Poppea served as the 1981 operatic centerpiece), the founders put on an extensive exhibition showcasing their exotic handcrafted instruments, created using surviving models and detailed treatises.
Since that first Festival in 1981, BEMF has grown into one of Boston’s most respected cultural institutions, forging new ground in the field of early music and historically-informed performance while thrilling audiences with modern-premiere performances brought to life by the most talented and exhilarating musicians from around the world. Hailed as “the early-music equivalent of the Super Bowl, the World Series, the Stanley Cup and the NBA playoffs all rolled into one” by The Patriot Ledger, downtown Boston is transformed when BEMF gets underway, literally streaming with people carrying their BEMF program guides (known as the Yearbook), wearing their Exhibition Passes, and greeting fellow Festival-goers as they scurry from one exciting event to the next from 9am in the morning till 11pm at night.
Some of BEMF’s most groundbreaking work has been in the field of fully staged Baroque opera, which have in recent years been preserved in a series of Grammy-nominated recordings. For its 2009 operatic centerpiece, BEMF is returning to Monteverdi’s sublime final opera The Coronation of Poppea, to be presented at the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion. Boston Center for the Arts, on June 6, 7, 9, 10, 12, and 14, with additional performances at the “mini-Met” of the Berkshires, the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington, MA. BEMF Artistic Co-Director Paul O’Dette explains that Monteverdi’s Poppea was “the first historical opera, that is, a work based on actual historical figures as opposed to characters from mythological or other classical sources,” adding that “Poppea is still relevant today because it is a dramatic work of exceptional power, set to music of extraordinary beauty, variety, and impact. It is unquestionably one of the very greatest pieces of musical theater ever written.”
The jewels surrounding this gem of an opera constitute one of the most varied and prestigious line-ups of musicians and programs in the Festival’s history. From a medieval drama based on the Biblical story of Judith performed by the Croatian group Ensemble Dialogos, to stunning settings of the sensuous Song of Songs by the outstanding young British vocal ensemble Stile Antico, to trio sonatas of J. S. Bach and his French contemporaries by the legendary ensemble of brothers Trio Hantaï, to Beethoven’s monumental Opus 5 for cello and fortepiano by Pieter Wispelwey and Kristian Bezuidenhout, to an encore presentation of BEMF’s own Evening of Chamber Opera featuring members of the three-time Grammy-nominated Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble, there’s a concert for everyone to enjoy during this exceptional week of performances.
And to provide attendees with opportunities to learn more about the music that they’re hearing during the week, plus many other aspects of the field of early music, BEMF offers a series of symposia, lectures, workshops, and masterclasses scheduled at various locations throughout downtown Boston with Festival artists and other respected leaders in the field. Whether you’re interested in the process of creating sets and costumes for Baroque operas, or learning some of the most popular dances of the 17th century with the BEMF choreographer, or discussing the latest trends in instrument making with Festival founders and builders from the Exhibition, there are plenty of places to delve into the many fields and disciplines that early music touches.
For a full schedule of events and ticket purchases, visit the BEMF website at WWW.BEMF.ORG, or call 617-661-1812 to receive a detailed brochure. The concerts, including Fringe concerts, are also listed on the Calendar of Events, Boston Musical Intelligencer.
Shannon Canavin is Director of Marketing, Boston Early Music Festival