Browsing the Boston Early Music Festival’s 2011 schedule of events brings to mind the intrepid musicological travels of eighteenth-century musician and writer Charles Burney and his eager mission to amass, through personal experience, nothing less than the entire history of Western musical practice to date —with a stylish and witty brand of scholarly insight to boot. If the smartly subtitled BEMF promotions are any indication, the week of June 12-19 will see a modern exploration of Burney’s era and beyond that would do the brave traveler proud. Now in its sixteenth incarnation, the biennial festival has tradition and the biggest names in the field behind it, promising a no-holds-barred operatic production in the Cutler Majestic Theatre as well as chamber opera and the finest in instrumental and choral music in central venues Jordan Hall and Emmanuel Church. Arm yourself with a portable navigation device and a love of chapels, however, to explore the offerings below the headlines: the “Fringe Concert” series of more than a dozen concerts per day scattered throughout the city and including both emerging and seasoned period ensembles of every shade and initiative.
Splendor is, of course, both arresting and in true Baroque spirit, and the fully-staged production of Agostino Steffani’s Niobe, Regina di Tebe (a North American premiere) will burst out of obscurity with style; “flying effects” suggestively share billing with stars and directors. In the title role soprano Amanda Forsythe, familiar to Boston audiences, will undoubtedly outshine even the flying effects. Further sumptuous costumes and doomed love will be on hand in the chamber opera production of Acis and Galatea, reprised from its popular November 2009 Jordan Hall showing (reviewed here). The all-star BEMF orchestra and soloists are sure to please on Thursday evening with a program of concertos, suites, and sinfonias by the masters. Also appearing will be early music celebs Jordi Savall, Rachel Barton Pine (with her Trio Settecento), and Kristian Bezuidenhout, the latter in multiple guises as harpsichord soloist with the festival orchestra, fortepianist in the keyboard mini-festival (Friday), and chamber musician in a performance of Mozart piano quartets (Saturday).
Like Dr. Burney in his pursuit of musical evolution, the artists of BEMF seem committed to reaching beyond standard German and Italian concert virtuosity. Savall’s Thursday program is titled The Celtic Viol – An Homage to Irish and Scottish Musical Traditions and features lute and percussion, while Slovakian ensemble Solamente Naturali will present Baroque Fiddlers from Moravia, Slovakia, England, and Scotland on Friday. If traversing the mountains and valleys of Europe — and beyond — suits your fancy, the fringe concerts offer more destinations: check out Boston’s own El Fuego (Monday), which promises “an exploration of the villancicos and zacaras in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries from Spain to the New World (Mexico and Guatemala)” or the ambitious program of ¡Sacabuche! (Friday), “a multimedia performance reanimating the pivotal cultural exchange between Italian Jesuits and Chinese literati in seventeenth-century China,” including likely the first appearance of guzheng and sheng beside gamba and sackbut.
All is not Baroque either. In addition to Renaissance vocal music from headline groups like The King’s Singers (Tuesday) and The Tallis Scholars (Friday), vocal offerings on the fringe docket include Eya’s medieval Spanish pilgrimage music (Sunday) and Vox Lucens Renaissance Choir’s mass by little-known Nicholas Gombert (also Sunday). In the other direction, several performances make sallies into the Classical and early Romantic: Stefania Neonato and David Kim’s pair of fortepiano Beethoven/Schumann concerts (Tuesday and Wednesday), Sylvia Berry, Stephen Porter, and Clara Rottsolk’s morning concert-symposium set on Schubert’s lieder and piano sonatas (Thursday), and the Genzinger String Quartet’s program of Haydn’s op. 54 (Saturday).
A certain amount of cerebral cleverness has always accompanied early music performance, and whether by accident or savvy marketing design, nearly every concert on the fringe schedule has a catchy, alliterative, scholarly, or flowery title (often with a colon, dissertation-style). This makes browsing for thematically unique programs or plain wittiness great fun. Offerings range from the Viola da Gamba Society of America’s simple and self-explanatory The Gamba Gamut (Thursday) to the New York Continuo Collective’s salacious Crimes and Passion: Love and the Criminal Underworld in Spanish 17th-century Song (Thursday) to Armonia Nova’s unabashedly romantic L’art de l’amour: the transforming power of love in the medieval world (Tuesday). Other performances explore programmatic music in a more literal way: USC’s student ensemble will present a staged production of de la Halle’s Robin and Marion (Friday) and in an especially creative use of media, The Newberry Consort will provide period musical accompaniment to the 1912 silent film Elizabeth I (twice on Friday).
Perusing the fringe listings brings up much more, starting with many of Boston’s own players and ensembles: L’Academie, Harvard Early Music Society, and Cellopinot on Monday, Travessada and Peter Sykes on Tuesday, the Longy Collegium Musicum and Les Bostonades on Wednesday, the BU Chamber Ensemble on Thursday, and First Lutheran Church’s Canto Armonico on Saturday. Additional performances by outstanding university and conservatory groups from across the country include Stony Brook (Monday), CIM, McGill, and UNT (Tuesday), Peabody (Wednesday), and Oberlin (Friday), proving that the next generation is putting their talent to work. While on the subject, local musicians-in-training should remember the series of masterclasses given Wednesday through Saturday.
BEMF attempts to encompass this rowdy and abundant collection of performances with its own proprietary title: Metamorphoses: Change and Transformation. Given the scope of the festival, one can only assume the title, like Dr. Burney’s tomes, refers to a centuries-long sweep of Western musical growth. However, consider—or debate—the popular and scholarly progression of thought on early music in the past thirty-odd years. (To this same end, the BEMF website has an “About Early Music” page.) Taking as evidence the glamour, anticipation, and sheer number of performers converging on Boston for the festival, one realizes that early music and period practice have fully metamorphosed from being a “movement” to being an integral part of the greater classical music culture.