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Bloomington Early Music Festival Summary

An all-too-short summary of what happened at the 2011 Bloomington Early Music Festival.

Frederick the Great as Perseus

Photo: Jdsteakley

Frederick the Great and Athena, the goddess of War, painted by Bernhard Rode in 1789.

Sorry for my tardiness on getting this summary out! There was some great stuff at BLEMF this year, here’s a summary of all the exciting things that happened over those five days! Be sure and pace yourself; this summary’s kind of long. All of the concerts from this year’s festival focused around the theme “Music in War, Music in Peace” to coincide with the “themester” at Indiana University, “Making War, Making Peace.”

Wednesday
The festival kicked off Wednesday with a panel discussion including professors from Indiana University Bloomington. The panelists included Bridget Balint from Classical Studies, Hildegard Keller from Germanic Studies, and Wayne Storey from the Italian Department. The topic was “War and Peace in Medieval European Lyric Poems,” and I particularly appreciated the discussion of the “Carmina Burana” and the poetry of Petrarch from a non-musical perspective. One theme that ran through all three of the presentation was the affect that the Crusades had had on every aspect of medieval life including both secular and sacred music.

Wednesday also featured the first concert with lutenist Nigel North performing lute music by Renaissance Italian composer Francesco da Milano. There is a famous story about Francesco’s music that says when he started playing at a dinner party, the entire room fell silent. After hearing the music, I can see why! Francesco’s music is some of the most difficult lute music to play, but in the hands of an expert lutenist such as North, the music can really transport the listener to another place and time.

I thought the setting of this concert was quite appropriate—not the case with all of the concerts in BLEMF this year. St. Thomas Lutheran Church in Bloomington is a relatively small church that was packed to the gills on Wednesday night. The small, intimate room was the perfect setting for an intimate instrument like the lute. It never had to fight against other noises to be heard in the space.

Thursday
The Duo Münir Nurettin Beken and August Denard performed on a program called “A Meeting Place” with music for ud from the lands of Turkey, the Middle East, and North Africa; and Western traditions associated with the lute. This concert was unfortunately one of those cases where the venue did not lend itself to a full appreciation of the music, but the performers were astounding. My favorite piece of the evening was the final piece that Beken and Denhard both played. It was the perfect representation of a blending of eastern and western influences in music: the improvisation and ornamentation provided by Beken on the ud, as well as the uneven rhythms, represented the traditions of Eastern cultures. But the harmonies were more in the Western tradition, which gave the perfect musical example of blending two seemingly different cultures.

Friday
Friday night featured music from the forgotten land of the Medieval Celts. The group Isshallyn recreated a story about the theft of a magic bull and the battle by the nobility of Ulster to recover this bull. Since no actual music survives from Medieval Celtic lands, members of the group had to do their best to recreate this music based on much later sources. I really enjoyed hearing such a unique story from a medieval country that is generally overlooked in the world of early music. The melodies had an otherworldly sound because they did not follow the general step-wise structure that most Western music tries to follow.

Saturday
Saturday night the San Francisco-based ensemble Magnificat Baroque performed Monteverdi’s Eighth Book of Madrigals, the so-called “madrigals of love and war.” Apart from madrigals, this book also had short dramatic works that Magnificat also performed. The concert featured music that included the entire ensemble of fourteen people, but also works with a vocal soloist and one or two violinists. While all of the performers were stunning to listen to, I must admit that I could have listened to the bass, Peter Becker, sing all night long. He not only had a crispness and resonance to his voice that allowed his voice to carry throughout the church on solo pieces, but also a warmth and ability to blend that gave the perfect foundation on which the other voices could soar.

Sunday
Then imagine my pleasant surprise when Becker appeared on Sunday’s concert along with tenor Paul Elliott, alto Mary Ann Hart, and soprano Alicia dePaolo. Sunday’s concert was titled “A Mighty Fortress,” featuring Johann Sebastian Bach’s cantata “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” and other works inspired by the idea of calling upon a power higher than ourselves to work through difficult times. The concert featured not only various settings of the Lutheran tune “Ein fest Burg,” but also settings of the antiphon “Da pacem Domine,” or “Give peace Lord.” While all of the pieces sounded quite different, they fit together very well and the listener did not get bored from listening to various manifestations of the same thing.
The aria “Komm in mein Herzenshaus,” sung by soprano Alicia dePaolo, almost sounded like the aria was written for her. The range of the aria matched her voice so well, and she sang with the perfect combination of clarity and warmth to make one wish the aria would never end.

Unfortunately, the concert did have to end, and the final piece was a setting of the tune composed by Sebastian Bach’s son Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. Wilhelm made a new arrangement of his father’s cantata that included trumpets and percussion that had not appeared in Sebastian Bach’s original cantata. The additions that Wilhelm made to his father’s arrangement added an element of grandeur that gave a satisfying finish to the concert, and the main stage events of the festival.

I’ll let the reader take from this next event what they will, but from the first notes of that final cantata to the last notes, the entire church was filled with sunlight. The whole day before and during the concert had been overcast and grey, but for a few minutes the sun shone through the stained-glass windows of the church lending beautiful natural light to a venue perfectly chosen for the performance of this famous cantata.

Anna Pranger

Anna Pranger moved to Bloomington in 2009 to pursue a degree in music librarianship. Before this, she worked on a degree in music history at the College-Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati, Ohio. She serves as both an assistant producer for Harmonia and the Music Library Assistant for WFIU.

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