The Antegnati Organ in the Basilica of Saint Barbara, Mantua

A Singer’s Notes 45: Holy Song…and a Miscellany

One day Beethoven got up and went to the house of Dorothea Ertmann, a woman he clearly loved. Her child had died. She had lost her ability to speak. The composer sat at the fortepiano and played for her a concert of late Beethoven that no one else will ever hear. She began to speak. Beethoven thought of music as a changer of things—a power—at its most powerful, a healer. The tale insists that Beethoven spoke no word to Dorothea. Anecdote? There is good evidence. And think of that other more important evidence—the motto he wrote at the top of the Missa Solemnis: “from the heart, may it go to the heart.” Think of the fundamental importance that actual physical sound had for Beethoven, how he relates in the Heiligenstadt Testament that losing his ability to hear made him suicidal. (Think of this also the next time you hear an expert say that he can hear the Beethoven 9th better reading the score than he can in the concert hall.) What healed Dorothea was a performance. The whole occasion was about sound. She made none, Beethoven made the sacred sounds; she spoke.

Boston Early Music Festival 2011 – I: Of Medieval Ovid and Schubert on the Fortepiano

A contemporary art dealer I know once exclaimed, as I was taking him around and old master drawings show I had organized, “this stuff has a lot of history. There’s a lot of history here…” as if history were a tangible quality that was somehow imparted to an object, whether by the artist, or by the physical touch of time, or by the many people who had successively owned it, or perhaps by something else…history! Every two years in June, history pours into the already deeply historical city of Boston in the form of historically-informed instrumentalists and singers, musicologists, historical instruments, historical instrument builders, historical editions, and manuscripts. Only a few of the historical folk—locals, most likely—knew that history was being made all around them, while some were immersed in the Roman de Fauvel and others were enraptured by Steffani’s Niobe, Regina di Tebe, as I was. As I sat down for the performance, I noticed a few more empty seat than I might have expected, and during the first intermission, I ventured out on Tremont Street for a few minutes.

Johann Christoph Bach (`642 – 1703)

Boston Early Music Festival 2011 – II: Success or Excess?

The number, variety, and quality range of the BEMF musical events is so vast that it induces a kind of giddiness or vertigo over the course of the week that can be taken as either the frenzy of enthusiasm or the disorientation of overload. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Going to concerts is always a social event, and attending a series of them along with numbers of articulate, knowledgeable people (including the total stranger who might be wearing an “Earlier than Thou” T-shirt) with whom you can share information and compare responses is stimulating—at the very worst—at best highly enlightening.

The Boston Early Music Festival 2011: a Preview with Concert Schedules, and about Steffani’s Opera, Niobe, Regina di Tebe

There are only a handful of festivals that have a real focus—one powerful enough to generate excitement among the musicians and the audience alike. The Boston Early Music Festival, now in tis 16th year is one of the supreme examples. Early music, which can extend from Ars Antiqua through Beethoven, is notorious among people who haven’t taken the plunge as a dry, scholarly variety of music-making, in which the thin, scrapy sounds of out-of-tune, obsolete instruments appeal mightily to a narrow clique of elderly males with unkempt long hair and beards, and perhaps beads and Birkenstocks, and their unprepossessing consorts. I find it amazing that some people can cling to this notion so far into the maturity of the movement. On the contrary, at the Boston Early Music Festival, you will find enthusiastic musicians and listeners of all ages, some of whom migrated from rock and folk backgrounds, who flock to Boston to learn the latest discovery about a score or an instrument, and to enjoy the sensual pleasure and intellectual stimulation of hearing great music played by the most accomplished players in the field. What festival could justify itself more compellingly that that? All you have to do is go to a concert or two, listen, and observe.

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