This past weekend I had the great pleasure of participating in Music City’s first ever festival dedicated to music from before the time of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. The inaugural Nashville Early Music Festival was held Friday & Saturday, September 25 & 26 at Lipscomb University (the festival’s sponsor), and included copious performances of (mostly) baroque music by local musicians as well as visitors from around the country, as well as more informal presentations, masterclasses, and opportunities for musicians, students, and anyone else interested in Early Music to listen, learn, converse, enthuse, and make friends.
I know that I am not alone in hoping that this is only the first annual event for a festival that will grow into a tradition, bringing Early Music to Nashville for years to come.
I first learned about NEMF in February. Francis Perry – a local classical guitarist and lutenist who teaches at Belmont University and plays with Music City Baroque – accompanied Nashville Symphony Principal Viola Dan Reinker on a Telemann sonata as part of Dan’s Onstage recital that month, and Francis and I spoke about it as we were waiting for patrons to arrive for the performance that evening. Francis and I each studied lute with Pat O’Brien (at different times) in New York City many years ago. Pat died last year, after a long and legendary career. We reminisced about him some and then shortly before the musicians prepared to take the stage Francis said – almost by the way – “oh we’re having an early music festival in the fall at Lipscomb”. In his understated manner Francis didn’t mention that he was serving as Artistic Director. I told Francis that I’d love to be involved in some way, and to just let me know if there was anything I could do.
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In August Francis called me and asked if I’d like to play lute as part of a continuo band accompanying soprano Terri Richter on some early 17th century songs in the closing concert of the festival – of course I agreed immediately. Francis was going to play theorbo, and would be joined by Memphis-based viola da gambist Joshua Keller and Lipscomb University guitar professor Mark Godwin on 8-course tenor lute. We decided I would play my little 6-course lute so as to have all different sized/timbred instruments for the ensemble.
Francis also invited me to present about the recorder in tandem with Jessica Dunnavant, who was set to present on baroque flute. Jessica and I have worked together before – we played recorders together on a Bach cantata in a Music City Baroque concert about five years ago, and in 2014 Jessica played recorder on BWV 106 when we performed it with the NSA Chamber Choir at Christ Church’s Bachanalia and later that spring at Blair School of Music’s Ingram Hall. She’s a terrific musician and very fun to work with. Over the next weeks we worked out some of the details, Francis sent me the music, and I tuned my alto lute down to A=415 and started playing lute again (it had been a while). I met with Francis on Saturday mornings a couple times in the weeks prior to the festival to practice with him.
After our first practice Francis asked me if I knew any singers who would be interested in singing in the Saturday morning masterclass, so I contacted former student (and former Nashville Symphony education intern) Brooke Semar, who had performed several Dowland songs with me when she was in high school. Brooke loves renaissance and baroque music, and was enthusiastic about the chance to sing Dowland again. This meant I had to tune up and practice my 8-course tenor lute as well as the little alto. Brooke and I met up a couple of times to practice Dear, if you change from Dowland’s The First Booke of Songes for the masterclass. This was a lot of fun, and we actually ended up working on some other songs as well.
On Friday morning after a meeting with my staff at Schermerhorn I met up with Francis, Terri, Josh, and Mark at Collins Auditorium at Lipscomb where the festival performances would be held. We rehearsed on the stage for a couple of hours – this would be the only chance we would have as the entire ensemble to prepare for the following night. Terri sang three Italian songs from the 17th century:
La bella più bella by Luigi Rossi (1598-1653)
O Maria by Barbara Stozzi (1619-1677)
Sdegno campion audace by Virgilio Mazzocchi (1597-1646)
It was so interesting to work together with Terri (who flew here for the weekend from California where she is working on her doctorate at UCLA) and the other instrumentalists to put together our performance of these pieces. In particular, the opportunity to perform music by a woman composer from the early baroque period (O Maria) was a first for me. For these three pieces, only the melody and continuo was indicated in our parts, and although I had worked a good bit with Francis on them there were still adjustments and enhancements to be made when we finally rehearsed with everyone. Playing music like this requires intense listening to everything that is going on and a fair amount of improvisation, with the goal of contributing to the texture in ways that enrich the sound of the whole ensemble without trampling on top of what anyone else is doing. Joshua and Francis played a transition á la recitativ that they cooked up together between the first two pieces, and we began the third piece with an extended group improvisation (a jam in modern parlance) before Terri entered: both of these transitions took a numbers of tries to get right. Since I was playing the highest lute I had to be very careful not to interfere with what Terri was singing, as the range of my instrument coincided very closely with that of her voice. On top of all of this, the opportunity to play with two other lutenists and a gambist is just not something that happens very often in Nashville (if it’s ever even happened before?) and I was aware of this too. The entire festival had the gentle, unspoken undercurrent to it that occurs when you do something for the first time: the feeling that you are participating in something memorable.
As our rehearsal finished the ensemble who were performing that evening arrived in the hall, and I had a brief rehearsal to set tempi with Nicolas Haigh, the group’s leader and organist/harpsichordist. Nicolas and I had communicated by email beforehand and he had agreed to accompany me on a recorder sonata the following day on the morning presenter’s recital. We went quickly through the movements determining the tempi we would take. Nicolas suggested that I speak with the group’s cellist/gambist Eva Lymenstull about playing as well, and then I left to return to the hall for the rest of the afternoon.
Friday night I made it back to Collins through light rain and the vagaries of parking at Lipscomb about a half hour before the opening concert of the festival. I signed in and received my festival pass, and greeted some friends and acquaintances in the lobby before finding a seat in the auditorium.
Early Music Festivals are a new thing in the American South – in fact I’ve never heard of one before, and believe that NEMF is the first one. The closest similar event that I am aware of is the Bloomington Early Music Festival in Indiana; there are about a dozen such events in the United States, most of them in the northeast or on the west coast. It’s fitting that Nashville should host the first event of this kind in the South since we are Music City, after all. The Historical Performance movement has been around for a couple generations now, and its presence and some of its ideals and principles are beginning to be felt even in the mainstream classical performance world.
NEMF 2015 opened with a concert Friday night and closed with a concert Saturday night, book ends to a Saturday filled with masterclasses, seminars, and recitals offered conference-style, with simultaneous offerings occurring throughout the day. With this format it is not possible for anyone to attend everything, and sometimes one is forced to make difficult choices – which leads to the exciting sense that a lot of cool (or nerdy depending on your POV) early music stuff is going on right now! Soak it up!
There were also receptions held following each concert, and other opportunities for musicians and attendees to connect, make friends, and perhaps even find someone else who shares your esoteric musical interest – rare even in Music City.
L’Académie du Roi Soleil (ARS) – The Academy of the Sun King – took the stage Friday night and performed a concert of works by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Jean-Féry Rébel, François Couperin, and Louis-Nicolas Clérambault. I was only familiar with the Couperin selection – the trio sonata (really a suite) L’Apothéose de Corelli from Les goûts-réunis. I’d never even heard of Jean-Féry Rébel before (what a great name though). This is one of the things I love about early music – the constant opportunity to hear something I’m unfamiliar with: to learn something new.
Recitals of French baroque music are rare enough in Nashville – although there was one on the very same stage last winter, I heard – and it was a delight to hear a program of this particularly demanding style performed with such accuracy and passion.
Soprano Margaret Carpenter sang on the opening and closing selections by Charpentier and Clérambault, framing the violin sonata by Rébel and the Couperin. Margaret’s delivery is dramatic and her use of dynamics is astounding – so much of the time I did not feel like she was being accompanied by the instrumentalists but rather used her voice in the manner of a fine chamber musician, holding back when the melodic lines of primary interest were given to the strings and holding forth when it was her turn to be in the spotlight. Margaret’s interpretation is apparently informed by baroque gesture as well, and she makes use of hand and body postures to underscore the text.
The entire ensemble played with precision, appropriately alternating between fiery intensity and limpid sweetness as demanded by the music. I was particularly impressed with how tight Cynthia and Alice (the violinists) played together, especially on the Couperin. Negotiating the sometimes tortuous rhythms of the agréments in a work like this can be challenging enough for a soloist, let alone when your part is dancing around another’s in the same range.
After the concert was over performers and audience alike gathered for a reception held in a neighboring hall that included a display of renaissance and baroque instruments curated by Byron Boyd and Duff Harris, early music CDs from Naxos, desserts and coffee. I especially enjoyed geeking out about historical temperaments with Nicolas Haigh next to the chocolate covered pretzels before heading home.
This story is concluded in the next post: