Early Music and It's Future
By James R. Oestreich, The New York Times
The new Early Music Festival: NYC, which ended last week, gives reason for cautious hope. You can’t be categorical about its prospects one way or the other, because several more or less similar ventures have come and gone in recent years.
But it is also clear that times are changing, and the current climate seems propitious. To a critic who used to lament with some regularity the lack of a vibrant early-music scene in New York, comparable to those in Boston and San Francisco — let alone, say, London and Cologne — the last decade has proved astounding.
Performance standards have risen markedly, thanks in large part to the Juilliard School’s establishment of a curriculum in historical performance. A new generation of gifted and enterprising musicians has rejuvenated and replenished the scene (to the occasional chagrin, no doubt, of veteran players in a growing but still limited market).
And early music is no longer a niche concern, least of all in New York. It has powerfully influenced the classical music mainstream with its concern for period style: its ethic of exploring the ways music might have been performed, and the meanings it might have held in its time; its use of — its very need for — improvisation and conjecture to fill in the gaps of sketchy sources and scores and breathe new life into age-old obscurities.
With the new energy and new initiatives, and especially with the teeming activities bankrolled by rich and powerful eminences like Trinity Wall Street and Juilliard, a certain institutionalization has crept into the field and begun to reshape it. But happily, there is still room for individual initiative.
Perhaps no one exemplifies that better than the soprano Jolle Greenleaf, the gentle force behind the new weeklong festival. When Ms. Greenleaf became artistic director of the excellent vocal ensemble Tenet in 2009, she immediately expanded its vistas.
On Jan. 2, 2010, a notable offshoot — the Green Mountain Project, coyly named for Monteverdi — came to life with a stunning performance of that composer’s 1610 Vespers, the first in New York (and perhaps anywhere) that year to celebrate the work’s 400th anniversary. Green Mountain returned every year with either the 1610 Vespers or a pastiche vespers service using Italian music of the period, mostly by Monteverdi.
Last week, to crown the festival, Green Mountain performed both the 1610 Vespers, on Wednesday, and a compilation, a “Vespers for the Feast of St. John the Baptist,” on Thursday, at St. Jean Baptiste Church. The pastiche — like the so-called 1640 Vespers, presented by Green Mountain in 2012 — was the work of the violinist and conductor Scott Metcalfe, its music director (with Ms. Greenleaf as artistic director) from the beginning
Alas, Monteverdi left only one complete Vespers setting, evidently, as Mr. Metcalfe wrote in program notes, his “bid for a job at the Vatican.” The more usual practice at the time would have been to scavenge among his own works and those of others to piece together the needed elements of a vespers service, as Mr. Metcalfe has now done twice.
For the John Vespers, he drew on music of Palestrina and Gabrieli, the obscure Benedictine nun Chiara Margarita Cozzolani and almost complete unknowns: Francesco Usper, Gioseffo Guami and Giovanni Felice Sances. Some of their contributions were beautiful, if not quite ravishing and stupefying, as Mr. Metcalfe suggested; those qualities applied almost solely to Monteverdi’s music, in the John Vespers as well as in the 1610.
The performances of both works were predictably splendid, and though you wished that the John Vespers had packed the church to capacity as the 1610 did, it drew a house seemingly less than half full. Still, it’s hard to judge the audience too harshly in this instance for knowing what it liked — a rare and exquisite creation — and wanting to stick with it.
Be that as it may, you have to appreciate Green Mountain’s creativity and enterprise in trying to diversify its repertory and claw another masterpiece out of this material. It is one of the joys of early music that, given how little even the experts sometimes know about it, creativity becomes a necessity and a way of life.
That has been evident, too, in Green Mountain’s rethinking of the 1610 Vespers every time out. Here, for example, there were differences — in the partnering of voices and instruments, in the deployment of voices around the space for echo effects and the like, and in the composition of the chant choir — from anything done before.
Green Mountain’s equitable sharing of vocal and instrumental solos makes it hard to single out performers. But mention must go to Ms. Greenleaf and her constant soprano sidekick, Molly Quinn; Jason McStoots, whose wonderful tenor numbers through two evenings more than made up for a wrong entry early in the 1610 Vespers; Jesse Blumberg, for his strong yet supple baritone solos; and Mr. Metcalfe and his violinist sidekick, Ingrid Matthews.
Other concerts in the festival gave a good representation of the current varied activity in the field. I caught afternoon performances, from Tuesday through Thursday, by the Diderot String Quartet, anchored by the cellist Paul Dwyer, who had led off the festival with a peripatetic survey of Bach’s cello suites; the Dark Horse Consort, here a quintet of cornetto and sackbut players, who formed the “brass section” (cornettos not actually being brasses) in the vespers performances; and the countertenor and tenor Ryland Angel with the viol consort Parthenia, whose little concert ended gratifyingly with the song by Thomas Tallis that Vaughan Williams used for a set of variations that is now famous.
All of these events were well attended and enthusiastically applauded, often with calls for encores. Early music lived in New York with special ebullience for a delightful week. For now, that is accomplishment enough.